Archive for October 11, 2012

How many hours per week should a graduate student work?

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 11, 2012 by telescoper

Here’s one of those things from Blogland that is flying around the Twittersphere today..

The original post revealed a leaked email  “sent to the entire graduate student body enrolled in the well-regarded astronomy program at Unnamed Academy” containing such gems as this:

We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work.  There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers.  However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school.  No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.  We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends.

This missive has already provoked a number of responses (e.g. here and here), but I couldn’t resist putting in a few comments myself.

The first and most obvious thing is that I don’t think the faculty members mentioned above were telling the truth. It’s by no means a new phenomenon for oldies to pretend that they worked harder than the younger generation. “When I were a lad…”, etc. This is either  form of delusion that accompanies ageing or a kind of one-upmanship designed to create a impose some sort of authority over the junior members of the department.  A supervisor who demands such things of a PhD student is likely to be someone who regards a grad student simply as a form of cheap labour and doesn’t care at all about their development as a researcher or indeed as a human being.

The following sentence gives the game away

No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.

It is clearly intended to mean No one told us, but we’re sure as hell telling you…“.

My advice to a young PhD student would be: if your supervisor tells you to put in 100 hours per week on the project, find another supervisor –  because he/she clearly hasn’t put sufficient thought into the practical feasibility of your project. The fact is if you have to work 100 hours per week to get your work done you must be exceptionally inefficient or working on a stupid project or simply nuts. Or all three.

The email is correct in saying that it’s “productivity” that counts. I’m sure there are many people who can sit at their desks for 11 hours a day without producing anything very much at all. It’s not the hours that matter, but what you do with them. In no way will indulging your outside interests (sporting, cultural, political, or “other”…),   or simply relaxing, detract from your ability to do research. I think such diversions actually improve your work, as well as (of course) your general well-being.

I had plenty of outside interests (including music, sport and nightlife)  and took time out regularly to indulge them. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel any guilt about doing that. I’m not a robot. And neither are you.

In fact, I can think of many times during my graduate studies when I was completely stuck on a problem – to the extent that it was seriously bothering me. On such occasions I learned to take a break. I often found that going for a walk, doing a crossword, or just trying to think about something else for a while, allowed me to return to the problem fresher and with new ideas. I think the brain gets into a rut if you try to make it work in one mode all the time.

But there is an element of truth in the paragraph quoted above. There were indeed many times during my time as a research student – and have been since – that I worked extremely long hours. I wouldn’t say exactly that was because I “enjoyed” it, but that I wanted to know the answer and couldn’t get the problem out of my head.  I’ve stayed up into the early hours of the morning trying to finish a crossword too. Not because I had to, but because I couldn’t put it down unfinished. I know that makes me a saddo in many minds, but I think that’s the sort of obsessiveness and tenacity a researcher needs: becoming so absorbed by the task in hand that you don’t notice the passage of time.

Anyway, as  a research student I certainly didn’t work 80-100 hours per week routinely, although I might have done a few times when things were getting interesting. I think an average working week of 40 hours is perfectly fine for a PhD student, as long as you use that time efficiently and are prepared to step up a gear when motivated to do so.

It’s been a while since I last had a poll, so let’s see if we can generate some statistics on this…