Friday, May 7, 2010

Getting it done in 40 hours: How expectations that junior faculty should work 80 hours a week normalizes being over-worked

How can you be a successful academic without abandoning your family responsibilities, dumbing down your classes, and over-working yourself to the point of exhaustion? Is the only way to get it all done to work upwards of 80 hours a week? I strongly believe it is not.

The truth is: you can get it all done in 40 hours. Moreover, it is crucial for academics to develop strategies that allow you to balance work and life outside of work. Of course, I will not deny the reality that many Assistant Professors do work upwards of 80 hours a week to achieve tenure. However, I also think it is possible to achieve tenure working just 40 hours a week.

Working 40 hours a week allows you to have time for your family, to take vacations, to do things you love, to engage in activism or to take up a hobby – all things many people claim are impossible while you are on the tenure track. However, these are also all things that are crucial for an enjoyable life. Why should getting tenure require suffering?

The expectation that you work 80 hours is unproductive
Unfortunately, many people continue to think that the only way to get tenure is to work constantly. I recall a faculty meeting where one of my colleagues asked me what I planned to do over Spring Break. Another senior colleague interrupted to say that, as a junior faculty, I did not have a Spring Break – surely I would be working on my research over break. Because of the expectation that tenure-track faculty must work around the clock, I felt as though it would be inappropriate to tell them that, in fact, I had booked a cabin in the Rocky Mountains for my family for the break.

I find this expectation that junior faculty work around the clock to be detrimental and unproductive. Moreover, this expectation prevents junior faculty from thinking of ways they can achieve tenure with a reasonable work schedule. If we all accept that it is normal for Assistant Professors to work insane hours, then those who are over-worked will feel less inclined to find ways to do what they need to do with a reasonable schedule. And, those who don’t work around the clock may feel as if they are not doing enough.

You can get it all done in 40 hours
My experience has been that I can get what I need to get done in a forty hour week. In that week, I find time to make progress on my research, teach my classes effectively, and fulfill my university and national service obligations. My experience has also been that the hours that I work over forty hours a week have a seriously diminishing return on my time investment. I simply am not efficient after working eight hours. I am less productive on Monday if I have been working all weekend. And, I am not a happy camper if I don’t have a real break from work over winter and summer breaks.

For these reasons, I encourage all junior faculty to try and figure out a way to accomplish all that you need to accomplish in an eight-hour day. What would happen if your organized your schedule into five eight-hour work days? You only really know the answer to that if you try it.