Sunday, August 3, 2014

How much do PIs work?

Just read this very astute blog post by Meghan Duffy about how much academics say they work, how much they actually work, and how much they should work. The gist of it is that there’s a myth that you need to work 80 hours a week to get tenure, that virtually all academics don’t work that much, and that working that much would be counterproductive anyway. I agree completely! I personally don’t work 80 hours a week, and I don’t think I’m working particularly more or less than anyone else. The upshot of the post is that we should stop promulgating the myth of 80 hours a week, and stop believing it when other people say it.

Hmm. I’m not 100% sold that it’s the myth itself that’s really the problem. In talking with my junior prof friends, we don’t really talk about how many hours we work or anything like that, and I certainly haven’t had anyone tell me they work 80 hours a week. But I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel overwhelmed by our jobs–it FEELS like we’re working 80 hours a week. I really think it is the perception that we’re up to our eyeballs that creates problems more than the reality of the number of hours we work. Why do we have this feeling?

I think there are two reasons (aside from the obvious one that yes, this is objectively a busy time of life). One is that once I started as a PI, my time was no longer my own in the same way it was before. As a postdoc, it’s very easy to measure your daily productivity: I needed to collect this data, and I collected it; write this paper, and I wrote it–checkbox ticked. Now, my day is filled with a large number of diffuse scientific tasks and specific administrative tasks, neither of which yield the same sort of fulfillment that actually doing science itself has. I think this contributes to the feeling of not “getting anywhere”, which leads to a constant sense that we need to do something, hence always feeling busy.

What to do about that? I don’t really do many (if any) experiments myself in lab anymore–once I started teaching, I was too overwhelmed to keep it up, and once that became more manageable, it was hard to get back on the experimental treadmill (mostly, I just fix stuff around the lab now). I was lamenting this fact with a friend who started his lab around the same time as me, and he said something that really stuck with me: “The best use of our time is to help our students get THEIR experiments working.” I think that’s very true, and that sentiment really helped me get over the guilt associated with not doing experiments anymore. But what it doesn’t help with is generating the feeling of accomplishment that let’s you sleep well at night knowing that you, personally, made some tangible contribution to the progress of humanity (or whatever it is that we do).

So lately, I’ve tried to assign myself a reasonable set of science tasks to do, like analyze a dataset or solve some computational problem. This has given me a real feeling of satisfaction, and has made me feel more productive. The amazing thing is that it also makes me feel less harried at the end of the day, because I can point to something I care about and say “I did that!”, so I feel much less like I’m behind on every single thing (although I’m still just as behind as ever). I guess the point was to inject a little bit of positive reinforcement into my life, and I think it’s given me more energy to tackle all the other stuff I need to get done. Of course, the key is to set reasonable expectations and set aside some time to complete the task, but that’s a whole other blog post… :)

The second reason that it feels like we’re working 80 hours a week is that on some level, we actually are–I think it’s just the nature of being a scientist. I’m into what I do, and I think about it all the time. I often think about ideas and projects in the lab before I go to sleep and when I wake up. Not every time, but a lot of the time. I’m running into the lab right now on Sunday morning because someone smelled burning plastic and I want to make sure the lab doesn’t burn down (update: issue with fan coil). Sometimes I’ll meet a colleague for lunch. We might talk about kids or teaching or research. Does that count as work? Maybe I’ll have an idea that springs from that conversation. Maybe get an idea in the shower. Is that work? What about writing this blog post?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like science is the sole purpose of my existence. I have small children, am married to a non-scientist, have non-scientist friends, and watch tons of crummy action movies. All I’m saying is that I love science. It is a pervasive part of my life, and I don’t feel a need to apologize for that–certainly no more than a need to apologize for watching virtually every Steven Seagal movie ever made (check out this one, where he plays a Russian mobster named–wait for it–Ruslan!). Perhaps this leads to feeling a bit overwhelmed sometimes, but overall, I am passionate about what I do and enjoy it tremendously.

Anyway, I think what I’m trying to say is that I feel like it’s the perception of how busy we are that matters more than the actual hours, and maybe the best way to improve our well being in that regard is to not focus on how long we work but rather how to make those hours as meaningful and fulfilling as possible.

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