Why do academics work so much?

Recently a Forbes article claimed that being an academic was the least stressful job of 2013. However, a storm of protest on social media forced the author to add an addendum acknowledging that this probably wasn’t the case. In fact academics work a a lot and that work tends to intensify in the so called ‘down time’: January here in Australia and July in the North of the world.  Freed somewhat from the distraction of emails and the responsibility of caring for students, us academics inevitably find  ourselves facing the deep end of the ‘to do’ list.

My January experience is a bit different this year because I’m more than half way through a 6 week break between jobs. I left RMIT on the 12th of December and I’m not due to start at ANU until the 30th of January. I have no classes to prepare and no ongoing projects at work to think about. I’ve reached that delightful point of the holidays where it doesn’t seem to matter what day of the week it is. To add to the general awesomeness it’s summer here in Australia, so Mr Thesis Whisperer and Thesis Whisperer Jnr have both had time off too.

to do listFriends and family have been regarding me and my time off with envy. “You must be very relaxed by now” said one, “just doing nothing must be wonderful,” sighed another. Well yes, it has been wonderful to have time off, but that doesn’t mean I have been doing nothing. Oh no – for that is not the academic way. Between bingeing on TV sci-fi series, catching up on all those Antiques Roadshow episodes on my TiVo (yes, I am an old person now), having meals with friends and general slacking off I have been getting through my to do list and landing some of my bigger planes.

‘Landing planes’ means finishing off projects which are in a nearly completed state. I’m indebted to Dr Tseen Khoo of the Research Whisperer blog for this term, which she learned during a workshop with Hugh Kearns of Thinkwell. By nature I am a 95%-er. I love thinking up new research projects and doing the initial work on them, but I hate the hard work of finishing.

That last 5% involves the boring things like polishing text, making revisions, tidying up footnotes and email correspondence with journal editors. I will do anything to avoid the last 5%, including cleaning the bathroom. Mostly though, when I can’t face the 5% I do nothing at all. It seems like I have two states of being: totally focussed on doing work or a completely switched off TV watching slob.

I probably should have slacked off more, considering that it’s going to be a busy year with a new job and all. But I can’t seem to stop working. Sometimes I think that doing a PhD turned on the ideas engine in my brain so that, even when I am on holiday, I never really stop thinking about my research. The long break has just given me more time to get to the 5% end of my research work than usual – mostly beacuse there are fewer demands coming from email. As I remarked on Facebook “It’s amazing how much work I am getting through without a job to get in the way!”

Many of my friends describe me as a ‘machine’. They say I turn out lots of academic stuff, including blog posts, but I think of myself as lazy. I see many people with longer publication lists than me and I envy them. I would be much more productive if I could bring the same focussed dedication to the last 5%, where the really hard work is. But, sadly, I avoid it that 5% like crazy unless it is the only work left to do. Other people I know love that 5%, but have the opposite problem and find it difficult to start. I know very few people who approach their work in which you might call a balanced way.

I used to think that this fundamental laziness meant that I couldn’t be addicted to my work, but now I’m not so sure. In his article “Addicts are Superhuman” Tom Matlack claims that being an addict and being lazy are not mutually exclusive. Matlack draws on research about addicts who manage not to kill themselves (what a cheerful topic) by Prof David Linden. Apparently addicts have problems with dopamine pathways which means, as Matlack puts it, they “want pleasure more, but like it less”. Matlack goes on to claim that “greatness doesn’t cause addiction, but addictive qualities actually cause greatness”.

Matlack’s argument rests on an attitude towards risk. Addicts are risk takers in pursuit of pleasure, but are less satisfied when they get it. If you have an addictive personality, and work is your pleasure, then your tendencies can be harnessed on the production of new ideas. I have to acknowledge that, for myself at least, this rings true. The ‘high’ that I get, for example, from publishing a blog post or getting a paper accepted in a journal, doesn’t last very long therefore I am always restless, looking for new ideas to get my next ‘hit’.

How does laziness figure in this formula? Matlack adds in a rider:

The obsessive character trait is often combined with an ADHD-like (or in fact, diagnosed ADHD) hyper focus followed by non-focus or, in fact, an inability to change focus or keep everyday things in perspective

Hyper focus followed by non-focus? This describes my long holiday experience perfectly! Since I read this article I’ve been wondering if all of us academics are wired a bit strangely. Hyper focus and risk taking are certainly traits I see a lot in my co-workers. Maybe this is part of the reason why we work so much?

I’m trying to make the hyper-focus work for me differently. Just like a pilot (hopefully!) employs intense concentration for a short window, I am trying to turn my hyper focus onto tasks like formatting a bibliographies rather than starting the next thing. So far this technique is working remarkably well, but I wonder how it will last into the new year when work starts again. My new job will give me plenty of scope for doing new things!

So I’m wondering about my fellow Australians – how have you spent the long break? Did you land a few planes or did you have engine trouble? For those of you in the rest of the world, where work is marching on, what gets your motor running to get through the deep end of the ‘to do’ list?

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29 thoughts on “Why do academics work so much?

  1. Matthew the StatsGuru® says:

    Great posting as always Inger!

    I too was greatly cheesed off by the contention that “being an academic was the least stressful job”, that is until I realised how cherry-picked their sample was. Most academics I knew and worked with at Monash, Deakin, La Trobe and RMIT were putting in a minimum 60 hour week even when there were no classes. The traditional 10-day Christmas shut-down period was the only “holiday” most took and even then, most wrote an article or two in between visits to oft-neglected family.

    I also like the reference to academics being addicts to work, but having periods of hyper-focus and then non-focus. I used to think that most of the academics, myself included, were somewhat bipolar. Later I began to realise that it was just a case of trying to rush to get things done while the ideas and enthusiasm were fresh before later being distracted or sidelined by other commitments. I’ve lost count of how many papers I’ve half-written and never finished, only to later cannibalise for a new half-written paper.

    Of course, these days I work for myself and so simply self-publish, thus avoiding nit-picking journal editors who haven’t really read my work but still getting peer-reviewed with an opportunity to continually improve the work. And of course, I still get paid the same (that is to say nothing) for publishing my work.

    As far as the “long break” goes, I’ve spent it mostly preparing more content for the website and reviewing the new AusVELS curriculum for K-10, along with a healthy does of gardening. 🙂

  2. Katherine Firth (@AcadSkillsMelb) says:

    I am certain the last 6 months of your PhD do permanent damage to the brain–in that while I do hyper-focus and brain fuzz, I’m never really off, and nor is anyone else in academia. I hate the last 5% too, which is why I have hired an RA, and suggest everyone who can (by cash, barter or blackmail) does. Having worked as an RA, I can assure you other people’s footnotes are easier to proof than your own!

  3. Kath McNiff says:

    I love this post. I’m an 80% girl from way back. I never quite finish my cup of tea and I rarely manage to finish hanging out ALL the wet socks. I also like to start a new project but am less enthusiastic about the finishing touches. So I really like this idea of ‘landing planes’ – might be a good New Years resolution.

  4. cgparkin says:

    I’m also in Australia and am a teacher. For me, my mood changes in the last few days before term starts. I get to the point where I would rather just “be back” as I get moody at the declining days! In Australia, I think Cheistmas breaks the holiday flow a little – something absent in the Northern hemisphere long summer break. As to the 5 % issue – I fondly recall being on Outdoor camps and when the pack up was required, the students would dawdle so that the “last 10 mins would take an hour”!

  5. Loup says:

    I’ve been spending the summer break trying to channel the turtle (tortoise?) – slowly getting myself back into gear for a PhD after ten years out of the game.

    I’ve been having some success (loosely defined) with having multiple projects going, but related. So a few things to slip into whenever the other one gets tiring. A reward system almost (you can work on the short story after editing the other one) (or, more likely at the moment, you can edit anything, just write your damn selection criteria).I quite like the actual end point, fussing with editing and whatnot, but I get fatigued in the long haul (hence spreading things out so it stops being the long haul and starts being ‘anything other than the thing I’m working on).

  6. ecspaeth says:

    I am certainly a 95%er – I’m an ideas machine but find it much harder to finish things off.

    I’ve been a hyper-focuser for a long time, but I only really realised this a few months ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to use it to my advantage by turning my PhD into small tasks, that I can burn through in one burst…http://ecspaeth.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/phd-or-rpg-the-game-of-self-directed-study/

    For me it’s a way to recognise the things I’ve achieved, so I feel less guilty when having down-time.

  7. the phd pimpernel says:

    Reblogged this on The PhD Pimpernel and commented:
    The Thesis Whisperer always manages to articulate what most of us are thinking.
    Visiting my Osteopath recently to discuss my sore neck and shoulder muscles I found myself saying ‘If any one asked me whether or not it was a good idea to do a PhD I would probably tell them that as long as they didn’t mind losing their figure, their health, and their marbles then to go ahead!”

    I have worked in various careers over the years and I have to say the last decade in academia has been by far the most stressful, especially as I have combined this with raising a family. Now teens my children do not recall a time when I was NOT a student or a researcher. And I have gained weigh, become unfit and have recurring and chronic health problems (though luckily treatable) as a result of the intense periods I spent hunched over my keyboard.
    Whilst I fully accept that this is largely due to my own lack of organisation or self-motivation (yes I should take more exercise, drink less alcohol, take more regular breaks, meditate and have fewer late nights and more early mornings), I do feel that much of what I suffer is as a consequence of the work ethos academia generates.

    Unless you are shrouded in angst and stressing over the next deadline, you are not really ‘getting’ the full PhD experience. It s something that MUST be suffered through!

    But by far the biggest hurdle of all is the lack of any ‘real’ understanding from anyone outside of the field. Unless you have been through it, or are living it, or are working in Academia, there is no way of expressing that it does not work like a normal job! You cannot quantify ‘thinking time’ for example. TW wrote “but that doesn’t mean I have been doing nothing. Oh no – for that is not the academic way. Between bingeing on TV sci-fi series, catching up on all those Antiques Roadshow episodes on my TiVo (yes, I am an old person now), having meals with friends and general slacking off I have been getting through my to do list and landing some of my bigger planes.” struck a chord with me – there is NO SUCH THING AS TIME OFF IN ACADEMIA. You cannot escape your own brain, your own thoughts, or the notion that you have to plan ahead … the only way to take time off is to leave the profession and do something else. Academia is a 24/7 job, that real life interferes with. it is the most incompatible job for family routine. And because you sit and ‘do nothing’ for long periods it is considered ‘easy’ … not by all but by some. And it is this constant struggle to get people to understand this. TW “Sometimes I think that doing a PhD turned on the ideas engine in my brain so that, even when I am on holiday, I never really stop thinking about my research.” – yup that just about summarises it for me too.

  8. Pamela Fruechting says:

    I loved this post! It’s nice knowing I’m not the only one that suffers from the hyperfocus-non-focus merry-go-round. It was because of my PhD work that I was diagnosed with adult ADD. In the words of my provider, “a classic case and you have it bad”. Now on medication, the hyperfocus-non-focus is still there, it’s just more clearly defined and recognizable, but doesn’t solve the problem of actually applying the hyperfocus on my dissertation work. 🙂 But I must say, the treatment has made a tremendous difference in my life, and not just academic. Again, Inger, thanks for a great post!

  9. ginger megs says:

    Yes, academia is stressful, and yes, ideas are churning 24/7. But let’s put it perspective, people. For most academics it’s not a life-and-death situation – if a paper isn’t published the sky will not fall. Of course thinking time can’t be quantified, but every profession requires thinking time – it’s not the exclusive domain of academics. People in other professions work 60+ hours pre week, they have family time and leisure time eaten into by work and ‘thinking time’, and just get on with it. It’s what comes with a relatively well-paid position that has obligations and responsibilities. (And please no whinges about poor pay – just look at the real world to see what people have to survive on.)
    If disorganisation increases stress, get organised; if health and fitness issues exacerbate stress, get off your backside and do something about it. Having been in the system while my own children were at school and uni, and now with grandchildren to help care for I know the mix of family and academia can be tricky. It’s no more tricky than for other professions.
    Academics are not a protected species. Yes, they work hard, but so do most people.

    • Matthew the StatsGuru® says:

      You’re right Ginger, most jobs are stressful and if a paper isn’t published the world doesn’t end. It is also true that some of the work done by academics does involve life-and-death situations as I can attest too when consulting for a major hospital’s research. Equally true, that academia isn’t the only place where people work 60+ hours in a week or have the unquantifiable “thinking time” as I well know from my time working in senior management for a multinational IT firm not to mention my time working as a commercial programmer. Also true, that if one can identify the problem, then one should be able to take steps to fix it (e.g. being disorganised), at least where it is within the purview of one’s own control. And yes, academics are not a protected species, nor are they the only ones who work hard.

      However, the game in academia has changed in recent years. Most teaching academics are being “encouraged” to either focus much more time on research and spend less time on teaching or leave the higher education sector (because teaching doesn’t make money). Research academics are being “encouraged” to take up a little teaching “on the side” to cover the loss of good teachers, much to the detriment of the students and the researchers themselves. New academics are generally put on short-term contracts or given casual contracts with the “carrot” of an on-going contract if certain performance hurdles are met (e.g. x published papers per semester, y hours of teaching with z+ score on student satisfaction surveys), which only adds to the stress of trying to do the job well.

      Another change to the game has been the introduction, in many disciplines, that you must now already have a PhD to even apply for a junior lecturer position, whereas it used to be the case that you could start working in academia as a tutor or RA and work towards a PhD as you essentially worked through your probation period. The PhD was the equivalent of “on the job” training. Now you need to complete a minimum of 7 years of study just to get to the possibility of an interview to teach first-year subjects. Should you get an interview, the majority of the attention is placed on your publication record and research ability, rather than your teaching ability (i.e. ability to do the job you’ve applied for). Apart from some areas of medicine and very specialised roles, I’m not aware of any other professions with potential for highly paid positions (e.g. accountancy) with a minimum requirement of having attained a PhD before entry.

      I would also challenge your statement about poor pay. I doubt many would consider $14K (pre-tax) a year, paid over the 26 “teaching” weeks, great pay. Funny thing is though, the students we teach generally earn more per hour working at McDonalds and once graduated typically start on a salary anywhere between 2 and 5 times what I’ve ever earned working in higher ed.

      Granted, there are some well paid academics, but they are generally those who have tenure or have made it to the associate professor level or above, which alone can take a further 10 years. The “newbie” academics, even those who’ve been in the sector for over a decade, who haven’t secured an on-going contract because of “departmental budget pressures” that prevent the offering of such contracts, are barely paid, if at all. At one institution, I usually waited 6 months to be paid due to “administration backlog”, only to then be paid in a lump-sum and so was taxed as if I was earning $7K per fortnight. Again, I would like to see other professions where this was considered typical or accepted practice. Of course, complaining about it to management only results in the greatly reduced possibility of an extension to your casual or short-term teaching contract, so you just have to shut-up and beg the bank not to foreclose on you if you want to keep working there (another hidden stressor).

      In short, there are many stressful professions and no list, like the one Forbes tried to produce, will ever truly capture all the unquantifiable stressors. Whether it is a verbal abuse hurled at a road worker or police officer for trying to do their job, the gut-wrenching heartache of having to euthanise unwanted and abandoned pets or the anxiety felt for a struggling student. Academia has many such stressors and the Forbes “survey” and article essentially overlooked them completely, cherry-picked those surveyed in academia and hence the backlash. I’m sure that if the article stated that parenting, housework or landscape gardening was the least stressful job then there would have been similar backlash because only those who do the job really know what is actually involved.

      As a former colleague of mine at Monash once described academia, “It is a place where the battles are so bitter and the stakes are so small”. It is this characteristic of academia, the constant competition (even with your colleagues and friends) that, in my opinion, leads many academics to, as Inger describes, struggle to “land the plane”. The last 5%-20% absorbs so much time and effort that you can feel like you are falling well behind the pack, especially when a colleague announces their own successful publication.

      After having my longitudinal PhD research project irreparably damaged by a colleague’s failure to follow the research protocol, I’ve thankfully left the universities behind and now work for myself, still teaching, researching and consulting for other’s research. I might (currently) earn even less than before and have different stressors, but I am much happier about it, for now most things are within my purview of control. I am even somewhat grateful that my project was ruined, otherwise I would have continued to let myself still be stuck in those casual contracts and be bullied by administrators with the threat of termination for not doing more work for free. Equally I would still find myself being criticised for spending too much time teaching, too much time with students supporting their learning and too much time researching into education, a topic that, according to the bean-counters, has “limited or no commercialisation opportunities” and hence not worthy of pursuit.

      So, yes Ginger, you’re right. If one is disorganised, do something to get organised. If one is a relatively well-paid professional with responsibilities that eat into your leisure time and family time, then “suck it up princess”. However, that is not the case for most of the academics I know. Most are relatively poorly paid, overworked individuals who spend most of their time racing between different tasks, teaching 5 or more courses a semester, supervising at least 3 HDR students and sitting on various ethics boards or other committees. Like a parent-bird, they only have the resources to feed the most demanding cry. At the same time, most of the “newbies” find that the rules of game keep being changed, just as they’ve mastered the old rules; a situation that doesn’t really help one be well organised or focused.

      • Pat says:

        I was very disappointed to read Ginger’s ‘politicly correct’ post and thank you Matthew for describing the real situation in Academia. It has not been mentioned though how senior academics (who got their academic posts without a PhD and were ‘trained on the job’), are doing everything to prevent a new generation of academics from getting anywhere close to resources (provided by the taxpayer!) and opportunities for further professional development. God forbid academic promotion! These Academic Gatekeepers behave as feudal landlords on their own land and instead of mentoring young academics (which would be their academic duty – a long forgotten concept), they make sure that you work on their last 5% with little or no recognition and never get to ‘land your own plane’.
        It is time for serious rethinking of academic structures and processes if this ancient profession is to survive in the 21st century. Thank you for a thought-provoking post Inger.

        • Pamela Fruechting says:

          I am interested in the converse…what is life like for PhDs who are NOT in academia? (I am thinking I will be one these rogues). What do you do and why? What is it like? How is that gratifying to you? What tips would you have for those of us who wish to make a niche outside of academia?

          I think these questions are pertinent because they reveal the status quo expectations that PhDs ‘should’ be in academia. I would really like to hear from those who think otherwise. I need your counsel!

  10. Lindy (McKeown) Orwin says:

    There’s a test for this …or several actually but here is a link to one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Team_Role_Inventories#Belbin_Team_roles
    that also mentions the Australian version by Charles Margerison and Dick McCann, called the Margerison–McCann Team Management System. I expect you’re on the creative end of the scale. In teams, it is good to have people who are concluder-finishers and evaluators by nature to make sure you make the last mile.

    • ecspaeth says:

      The Belbin team roles are interesting. We did the self-perception inventory before a training course at my university, and my “preferred” roles were dead on. Shaper, plant, and implementer – meaning I have ideas and like to get things done, but am just not so good at finishing things off.

  11. No 'team' in 'I' says:

    I guess that’s the problem, though – for many (most?) PhD students, it’s not a team endeavour – so you have to be good at all the different roles!

  12. @TheresaPetray says:

    I think that personality comes into it for some people, but a lot of the stress of academia also comes from the neoliberal university, obsessed with quantifiable outputs rather than quality of ideas. There is a lot of unspoken institutional pressure to *not* take holidays – partially due to the limited time between teaching semesters available for breaks, which coincides with the only meaningful, big blocks of time to do research. I’ve just come back from holidays today and have been asked by several people already if it has been productive, if I got anything written, and so on.

  13. jrlookingbill says:

    Definitely appreciate the idea of the 5%, but should n’t some of our projects die? As a writer, finishing is important. But for the sake of readers, it’s best that not everything makes it to the finish.

  14. robyn74 says:

    I was a full time academic for 6 years; and then started my PhD. Compared to my time working for NGOs and small community organisations in mental health and international development, uni life is bliss. I earn at least $30k more and don’t have to do everything from ordering the toilet paper to organising charity balls to counselling people with mental health issues. No more writing grants on the weekend for funding to keep my job and 5 others. If I turn up at 10am no one glares at me. If I leave at 4.00pm; that’s cool.. If I wear thongs and a feminist t-shirt no one says a thing… But I think like any workplace it depends on the people and managers. Yes I never get a break from my work, “I’m always thinking”. I do occasionally have 2am finishes. Yes I have missed my kids birthdays to attend meetings. But as someone said to me at my first job at the Woolies bakery…work smarter not harder….it continues to be my mantra. I think we should be grateful for what we have, there are people who’s work is a continued hard struggle: community health workers, carers, child care workers (those people who look after your kids so you can do your Phd). My husband is a chef and believe me it’s nothing like Master Chef but poor pay, long hours. I worked hard to get tenure but I appreciate that I have choices and I’m privileged to wake up and smile, knowing I’m paid to do something I love. And I can always choose to do something else. Most people don’t have that choice.

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