Why I Don’t Tell Trainees How Many Hours I Work as a Tenure-Track Faculty Member

Originally Posted: June 6, 2016

I’m repeatedly asked by trainees how many hours I work and how many hours early career faculty in statistical science 'need' to work in order to be successful at a research-intensive institution. I generally do not answer this question for a number of reasons, which I share with them.

1) Research consistently shows that people are not able to accurately estimate working hours, tending to grossly overestimate. Thus, claiming an excessive number of hours worked per week does not impress me. I’d rather hear about what you accomplished and what new projects have you really excited. I do not know exactly how many hours I work, and have not felt compelled to devote energy to counting. I do, however, often set limits on how many hours I will do specific tasks or when I will stop working each day.

2) Perpetuating the myth that you must work 80 hours every week to be a faculty member and get tenure is harmful. Trainees well suited for academia may self-select out of their desired academic career if they think work-life balance is not possible. This is a substantial concern of mine now that statistical science PhDs have many more options with data science positions skyrocketing in other sectors. I'm strongly supportive of all career paths, but we should not be scaring talented scientists who want to be academics away from academia with this exaggerated estimate. Even based on self report at my institution, the median number of working hours of Harvard faculty is not 80 per week (see slide numbered 15). Additionally, not all academic positions have the same mix of research, teaching, and service, which adds substantial variability in culture and average working hours.

3) Overall, efficient hours of work are much more important than the sheer number of hours. If I spend two hours drafting part of a manuscript while distracted, that is less valuable than spending 30 focused minutes on it.

4) Most importantly: great ideas, being driven, balancing ambitious yet feasible projects, maintaining productivity, and developing an ability to effectively navigate the competing demands of academia are all much more crucial to success than a certain number of working hours. The persistent focus on touting hours is misguided. Working X+10 hours versus X hours per week does not guarantee you will be successful. We should also not discount the role of luck (and privilege) in career success.

RELATED: Advice on How to Be an Effective PhD Researcher

More Elsewhere on the Web

After writing this, I did a quick Google search to find other pieces on the topic I could link to at the bottom of my post. Megan Duffy covers many of the same points I did in her post to Dynamic Ecology. Despite the overlap, I decided to publish it since I am in a different field, I think #4 is especially important, and there is likely some benefit to a plurality of voices on these topics.