So, how hard do I actually work?

The answer for anyone in a”tl; dr” mood: when I was in my PhD program, I probably worked 60 or 70 or more hours a week, which is why I was able to finish my doctorate in three years. When I was tenure-seeking and then associate, I probably worked more like 50 hours a week and a lot in the summer. Now that I am full and fuller/uber, it’s more like 40 hours a week (with a lot of multitasking and a lot of work at home) and a lot more time off in the summer.

Here’s the more complicated version prompted by a recent article in The Atlantic, “How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?”

Laura McKenna begins “If there were a ’10 Things That Piss Academics Off the Most’ list, ranking near the top would be the perception that academic life is easy and relaxing.” True that. There is nothing academics like to complain about more than when non-academics think we don’t work hard or that we get paid too much or that our jobs involve no stress or what-not. It’s a combination of frustration (because academics do work hard, and there is a lot of stress, especially when a lot of the recent news about your employer has been kind of bad) and incredibly common and deep deep personal insecurities amongst faculty-types, insecurities that are honed and sharpened in graduate school and perpetuated afterwards by a constant need to perform constant work.

I’ve actually been trying this semester to systematically track when I’m working, and also to work more in my office at school. I started to do this because I didn’t know exactly how many hours a week I worked, because I have a pretty nice office at school I feel like I should use more, and because I am trying to continue to do a better job of separating my “work” life from my “life” life.

These efforts have not gone well.

For starters, I keep forgetting to actually keep track. I’ve been using the free version of an app called toggl which is designed for workers who bill by the hour and/or otherwise want to keep track of their time. The idea is you open the timer window in a browser, type in a description, and click the timer. I am kind of getting the hang of it, but I noticed Saturday I forgot to use it all on Friday (when I did do a lot of work while snowed in at home), which means I had to take a good guess. Further complicating this is I tend to switch frequently between working on school stuff/teaching stuff for 30 or 45 minutes and non-work things like house cleaning or snow removal or goofing off for a while.

Often the things I do are difficult to neatly categorize as “work” or “not work.” McKenna shares a whimsical tweet from an anonymous philosophy professor who ponders to what extent mulling over academic stuff while in the shower counts as “work,” but there are some real situations where what I do is both work and not work. One of my regular exercise routines is to read stuff I’ve assigned (to prep for class) or scholarly things while walking on the treadmill; what’s that? How about when I answer emails while watching TMZ and other junk TV shows? And what’s a blog post like this?

Plus there is also the ever-present problem of the nature of the pleasure and reward of the work itself. As McKenna points out in her article, “If someone is obsessed with Victorian literature and is lucky enough to have a job that pays her to research that topic, does reading Oliver Twist in the evening really count as work?” I think some version of this is true for almost all academics. I don’t think anyone goes into this profession just for money, mainly because there are better ways to just make money. I started doing this work because I liked it, and I continue doing this work because I still like it, it has come to define my identity, and, at this point in my life, I’m not sure what else I would want to do/could do for a paycheck.

Plus plus there is the assumption that working requires presence in a particular place of business. There are of course lots of academics who have to work in a specific place, like “the lab” or “the studio.” But academics in fields like writing and the humanities generally have the flexibility to work from home or coffee shops or what-have-you, and that’s pretty much the way I’ve worked my entire academic career. So one of the reasons why I am finding it so difficult to actually work in my office at school is because I’d rather work elsewhere, particularly in my home office where no one else is around (except for Annette maybe), where I can stay in my pajamas, and where it’s easy to take breaks like walking away from a stack of grading for a while to start a load of laundry. In contrast, it’s just not that easy to get a lot done while in my school office. I spend most of my time there talking about stuff with colleagues and meeting with students– valuable face-to-face time of course, but distracting from writing, reading, grading, and so forth.

This brings me to one of the other problems of defining academics and work, the notion of work defined as activities and tasks versus work defined as a place where one is required to be for certain hours and certain days. It seems like telecommuting and/or “working from home” has become a lot more common and popular in the last 10 or so years, so it isn’t quite as difficult now as it once was to explain that I actually do a lot of my work at home or in coffee shops. Still, the kind of people who believe professors don’t do a lot of work because all they do is show up in their office for a few hours a week and teach their classes are the same kind of people who have jobs where they have to be in a felt-lined cubical from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm (with breaks and a 30 minute lunch thrown in) five days a week no matter what.

But okay, after all that and for anyone who did read this far:

  • As a PhD student, I did work more than 60 hours a week. Sometimes way more than 60 hours a week. But my goal was to finish the program as quickly as I could. Besides, back then, Annette and I were living on almost nothing in Bowling Green, Ohio (which is a town that is “conducive to study and staying at home and working,” if you get my drift), we didn’t have a kid, and everyone we knew was a graduate student doing something pretty similar to us. It seemed pretty normal to work like that.
  • I worked a lot while seeking tenure– probably like 50 hours a week– though EMU is not a “publish or perish” kind of place, which makes the tenure and promotion process both a lot less stressful and less time-consuming compared to more intense “R1” kinds of institutions. I also used to work a lot in the summers because summer teaching used to be a lot more available at EMU (and I of course liked adding 20-30 percent to my base salary). But at this stage of my career, I suppose I work more like 40 hours a week or so, and summer teaching (increasingly unavailable anyway) is a lot less appealing.
  • There is absolutely no way I work as much now as I did when I started my PhD program 25 years ago, which is to say I’m not buying the claim that full professors work just as hard as graduate students. That said, I could work as hard (or harder!) than I did when I was in graduate school. It would be easy to spend much more time on my teaching and scholarship, and I could easily get involved in more service work both on campus and beyond. It’s just that I don’t need to work as hard because I’m a lot better at working “smarter” now than I was when I started, and I’m not as interested in competing with my peers here and elsewhere anymore.
  • I do still like to work though, and I get bored if I am away from “the work” too much. So part of my own perceptions of how much I work (or don’t work) is distorted by the fact that when I spend a lot of time on something I enjoy and find fulfilling, it doesn’t seem like “work” and it doesn’t seem like hours and hours. Maybe this is true for most academics. Maybe the people who say they are always working 60+ hours a week don’t particularly like their work anymore, and maybe the ones who say they work so much less than that just don’t realize how much they work because they like it so much.
  • It’s been hard for me to try to keep track of the time I spend on work stuff and different aspects of work stuff. But it’s also been educational and made me think more carefully about when I’m working and how much time I’m wasting.
  • Speaking of which, I think I spent far too much time writing this post about time spent working.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.