Every so often, I’ll read something or other about how the culture of work in academia is toxic, encouraging people to work 24/7/52 (why do people say 24/7/365?) and thus ignore all other aspects of their existence and in the process destroying their life. As I’ve written before, I think this argument gets it backwards. I think most academics work hard because they want to and are immersed in what they are doing, not because of the “culture”. It is the conflation of hours and passion that lead to confusion.
Look, I know people who are more successful than I am and work less than I do. Good for them! That doesn’t mean I’m going to start working less hard. To me, if you’re thinking “I need to work X hours to get job Y/award Z”, well, then you’re in the wrong line of work. If you’re thinking “I really need to know about X because, uh, I just need to know” then academia might be for you. Sure, sometimes figuring out X requires a lot of work, and there is a fair amount of drudgery and discipline required to turn an idea into a finished paper. Most academics I know will make the choice to do that work. Some will do it at a pace I would find unmanageable. Some will do it at a pace I find lethargic. I don’t think it really matters. I read a little while ago that Feng Zhang goes back to work every day after dinner and works until 3am doing experiments himself in the lab (!). I couldn’t do that. But again, reading about Zhang, I think it’s pretty clear that he does it because he has a passion for his work. What’s wrong with that? If he wants to work that way, I don’t see any reason he should be criticized for it. Nor, conversely, lionized for it. I think we can praise his passion, though. Along those lines, I know many academics who are passionate about their work and thus very successful, all while working fairly regular hours (probably not 40/week, but definitely not 80/week), together with long vacations. Again, the only requirement for success in science is a desire to do it, along with the talent and dedication to finish what you start.
I think this conflation of hours and passion leads to some issues when working with trainees. To me, I most enjoy working with people who have a passion for their work. Often, but not always, this means that they work long-ish hours. If someone is not motivated, then a symptom is sometimes working shorter hours–or, other times, working long hours but not getting as much done. If we’re to the point where I’m counting someone’s hours, though, then it’s already too late. For trainees, if your PI is explicitly counting hours, then that means either you should find a new PI or carefully consider why your PI is counting your hours. What’s important is that both parties should realize that hours are the symptom, not the underlying condition.