The impossible time budget in academia
“Something on this list will not be done well”
In December last year, I was reading a tweet by Bryan Dewsbury that still resonates with me. It lists all the activities and obligations a scientist need to do in order to do a good job as well as living healthy and be socially engaging (you can find it here). The tweet ends with the conclusion that something on this list will not be done well.
Here is his tweet in exact phrasing: “Publish several papers a year. Secure federal funding. Review for journals. Be excellent in the classroom. Spend time with your advisees. Be a good spouse, parent, friend. Exercise. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Something on this list will not be done well..”.
If you are now in a desperate state you are not alone. I am totally in despair thinking about it and my current situation with more obligations on the family side since becoming a dad (see my last weeks post). So it is worth to take a closer look at each item.
For this let’s split the day into three parts: Sleep, work-life, and private life.
Sleep is mandatory to all of us and science shows that sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night seems optimal for well-being while substantially longer or shorter periods are predictors for morbidity and mortality [1,2,3]. So, to work on the list item “get enough sleep” we have to spend about 1/3 each day sleeping. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos ensures to have a healthy 8 hours of sleep each night  to be able to make important decisions without being “tired or grouchy”. “If you shortage your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion”, he said in a 2016 interview with Thrive Global . So, being sacred on getting enough sleep is likely to have positive effects on your work and private life.
If we constantly take aside 8 hours of sleep, that leaves us with 16 hours to spend on the remaining items on the list. If you take aside weekends for non-work related activities that leaves us with 80 hours to spend on.
Do you now think of the 80-hour workweek some peers brag or complain about? I certainly do – especially how unrealistic this claim is. Or unhealthy. Or simply unproductive. All of it! So, instead, let’s assume a simple 9-5 work routine (I know that’s equally unrealistic for most who work in academia…*sigh*). That means 8 hours of work – not counting in lunch or other breaks – in which you squeeze in your list items: “Publish…”, “Secure…funding”, “Review…”, “…classroom”, “…time with…advisees”.
Publishing is the climax of your research. After you have done all the data gathering and analyzing you write it up into a compelling paper and submit it to a scientific journal. Publish several papers each year means your research alone eats up a substantial amount of your work-life. I think most PhD students are expected to have three publishable chapters after 3-4 years before the defense. For higher levels of the academic hierarchy, this number multiplies. Without a productive team, students and external collaborations publishing SEVERAL papers every year is hard to achieve. And it is very time-consuming for sure. Reviewing alone can take up months, sometimes even years of repeated revising and re-reviewing before your work eventually gets accepted and finally published. Hence, there is a time-lag that needs to be considered as well to meet the demand of “Publish[ing] several papers a year”.
Writing grants is another time-consuming endeavor. And with further plumping success rates at national science foundations, time goes up to work on with more and revised proposals. A 2013 paper in BMJ Open  estimated an average time of 34 working days spent on writing or revising over 3700 grant proposals in Australia which translated into an average total of 550 working years and an annual salary costs of 66 Million AU$ – just for proposals submitted to the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia. In 2017, the German Science Foundation received over 4800 proposals for single projects . Applying the same number of working days on each proposal from the Australian study this would add up to 654 working years spend on proposal writing. Applying an annual PostDoc net-salary of 50k€ (57k US$) in Germany (professors earn more) this means that a staggering 32.7 million € (37.2 million US$) are spent on this task alone. And with a rather optimistic success rate of 20% a researcher need to multiply their number of proposals to have one lucky draw. If we consider 250 working days per year spending 34 working days on an average proposal, it means that we spend 1 hour 5 min each day working on a single proposal. Great, right?!
Reviewing other’s submissions can eat up a lot of time but don’t has to be. After I realized that I did more than one review a month I decided to reduce this tremendously as I needed one, often two working days to do a proper review (that’s up to one working month spend reviewing). As peer review is the backbone of academic publishing it remains important even though the personal merit is quite restricted and includes the bad feeling of supporting a very profit-oriented business model with incredibly high profit margins . Nevertheless, peer review is a proven (despite its flaws) quality control system and if you have your papers reviewed you should review in return to maintain the system. A good rule I found was proposed by Yaniv Erlich  to use 3*n review units, where n is the number of papers you have published. As long as you are below, you are considered a “parasite” who takes more units (a review has 3 reviewers on average) than he offers. While still not perfect (e.g. you could think of dividing the 3*n units by the number of co-authors) it gives a close approximation. Since I am now serving on two editorial boards I replace one review unit for each paper I edit.
Teaching must be for many academics the most time demanding task which can make up to 60% of the time of a 40 hour workweek . Standing in the classroom to give a lecture is one thing, preparing the class (slides, syllabus, admin) and be available to students is another thing. Given the large amount of time teaching-related activities consume for faculty staff, while not being able to cut off hours from other academic activities like research or supervision, working longer hours and on weekends is the result; and enter the third part of the day: the private-life.
And here we are again, not near the 80 but certainly close to – or sometimes surpassing – the 60-hour workweek as the last study  found out. Hence, simplifying the academic work-life into a 9-5 scheme seems – as sad as it is – illusive given the tasks and duties we face at work. So we gnaw on the private-life or sleeping hours.
Following the list from the tweet that is where we have to squeeze in: “Be a good spouse, parent, friend”, “Exercise”, and “Eat well”.
But first, we have to commute from work to our home. Numbers from a 2011 OECD report showed that the OECD average is 38 minutes, one-way. That means before we can do any private activities we have to spend roughly one hour per day commuting back and forth.
Be a good spouse, parent, or friend is hard to put into numbers. But one thing is for sure, on the long term, if you don’t spend any time on either activity you don’t have to worry about family and friends anymore because they will be all gone. Being a good spouse needs presence, being a good parent needs a lot of presence – no excuse! You may cut on activities with friends but a social life outside work and family also is important even you might have more flexibility here (as everybody has less time you can focus on the evenings and weekends). Yet, just the other day I heard about a newly hired assistant professor that got divorced from his wife to be able to move to the city where the position was offered. He simply cut his private life to move on with his academic life with more time now for all academic-related activities. Remember that this might become the type of personality you compete with on job ads…
Exercise is as healthy and important as good sleep and I will avoid confronting you with the science behind that. For a minimum requirement to stay healthy the NHS in the UK recommends 150 minutes of physical activity each day or 30 minutes for five days each week.
Eat well as the final item of the list is also difficult to cultivate if you are spare on time and have to prepare it yourself. So instead you built up bad eating habits. Eating processed foods poor in nutrients and high in carbs and saturated fats which in combination with a lack of exercise increases the risk of poor health.
To reiterate the conclusion of the tweet: “Something on this list will not be done well”! If you thrive for a faculty position understand that you do three, not equally treated, jobs: you are a teacher, a scientist, and a manager. And they add up to far more than the 8 hour workday of one full-time job under the current system. If you want to stay close to a 40-hour workweek you need to make compromises, be it in the quality of your teaching, the amount of research, or your investment in supervision. Even if proven scientifically wrong, working longer hours does not relate to more productivity, as the staggering long working hours applied in academia might suggest [11, 12]. You simply do more poor work at the cost of your health and relationships. All this does not really lead to improvement. We desperately trying to heal a symptom (i.e. not enough hours to do all the work) instead of fighting the root of the problem, which is an ill-behaved work culture in academia that puts so much pressure on the shoulders that already early career scientists can’t cope with it anymore  as can be clearly seen in high dropout rates from the academic system to elevated rates of depression and suicide compared to other corporate areas within the same age group .
We need a shift in mindset towards more flexibility and freedom as it can boost scientific outcomes and happier scientists. We need to stronger detach teaching from research by framing positions accordingly to either teaching or research activities or by automatizing teaching altogether into online courses to free up time where scientists can do more science and actively engage in student-mentor relationships. And we need to renounce our current metric system we use to evaluate academic success and that reward personalities that work 60 hours a week, that leave their families behind for their work and that become toxic supervisors who not value any other fashions of life.
I think with the millennial generation entering academic job positions there will be shifts towards the better because the alternative will be a brain-drain of talent and excellence away from academia that simply refuses to work under such conditions.