Academia’s Culture of Overwork: Blog 5

I recently came across a tweet that summarizes a problem in academia that I feel needs to change moving forward. Meg Brayshaw, an early career researcher, highlights one of the most pervasive and (in my opinion) harmful institutions of academia – the culture of overwork.


Meg, in her tweet, identifies something that I think most of us are aware of… that overworking, that pushing yourself and those around you is not only rewarded in academia, but it is glorified. It happens to graduate students, who work ridiculous hours under some less than healthy living conditions, and it happens to professors and administrators.

Take a minute to listen to my advisor’s, Dr. Amy Pruden, TED talk about how ‘Changing the World takes more than Hard Work’.

Pay special attention to around the 3-miniute mark (and beyond) where she identifies what it takes to be a ‘successful’ professor and how the system judges a person’s scientific contribution by a set of numbers.

Dr. Pruden created a ‘system’ to be successful that revolved around limiting social interactions, typing short emails, not answering the phone, and frequently sleeping 3 hours a night while relying on caffeine to stay awake. This is the system that we live and work in, and is the result of academia’s culture of overwork. Dr. Pruden’s wakeup call was almost falling asleep while driving on the interstate with her two children; hopefully academia’s wakeup call doesn’t require a similar experience.

I could sit here and type out example after example of what overworking in academia looks like (and feel free to give your examples in the comments as I feel acknowledging our problem is the first step toward fixing it), but I am curious as to why academia has such a problem with overwork to begin with.

Personally, I think the problem revolves around how willing people in academia (graduate students, professors, etc.) are to overwork. The benefits are obvious – more work is done, more papers published, more grants written, more… more…more – so as the percentage of people in academia willing to overwork goes up, those who are not willing to overwork go from being ‘less successful than their peers’ to being ‘unable to succeed’ as they become replaced by those willing to overwork or are never hired in the first place. Essentially, the number of people willing to overwork has to be less than the job demands before those not willing to overwork become competitive.

Personally I don’t think we are anywhere close to that – as graduate students or faculty. Regardless of what people say or think, academia attracts enough intellectually competitive people that there will always be a willingness to do more for less IF it means they can get ahead of those around them.

Take graduate students for an instance, I sadly think graduate school can often be equated to an arms race where we are all essentially competing against each other. If student A is willing to work 60 hours a week and student B is unwilling to overwork, student A (more times than not) produces more and becomes the standard. Student B then realizes that they are essentially being judged by student A’s bar and either 1) has to overwork to meet that standard or 2) accept not being  as competitive and the consequences that it brings (whether that is longer time to graduate, less publications, advisor resentment, fewer opportunities, inability to become a professor, etc.). Then consider that it’s not two students, but most students and most prospective students – all willing to work 62 hours or maybe 70 hours until the bar required to be even average is unhealthy.

What choice is there? How does a student look around at their peers (all grinding away) and at their advisors (who barely sleeps) and decide ‘I am the one that deserves a break’ when you feel you don’t work as hard as those around you? The system makes it hard to even acknowledge what overwork is, because in academia overwork has become the norm and it has been glorified.

I do imagine this problem is found in other industries, as the pressure to be successful radiates externally and internally in most of us.  I think the difference with academia, and why overwork is so prevalent, can be attributed to the saturation of competitive and driven people in academia vs the typical work place. Like it or not, the vast major of people not willing to do more for less is what sets the bar at what’s typical or average and the vast majority of people in academia are willing to overwork.

I don’t really have many suggestions for how to fix this problem, and admit that it’s one that will be particularly challenging because it goes against what seems to be our basic instincts. Personally, I think wide ranging, systemic changes are the only way to eventually make lasting changes, but it has to begin with understanding that we do have a problem and that an unwillingness to overwork shouldn’t be perceived as laziness.


3 Replies to “Academia’s Culture of Overwork: Blog 5”

  1. THANKS FOR THIS, I totally agree, this is a major problem, and it is self-destructive and I hate hate hate that culture of “Oh I spent all weekend in the lab” or “I only slept 4 hours last night”. I can’t compete on this level, I don’t want to, and it messes things up for the rest of us. 1) I am an older grad student, at 37 I can’t pull all nighters, and I know enough to know the health effects of that lifestyle aren’t worth it, I’m not going to give myself breast cancer to compete in this system. 2) I have an autoimmune disease, pushing myself in this way, tons of caffeine, no sleep, bad eating, stress, no self-care time or exercise, I will end up in the hospital, so yeah, again, not going to kill myself for my graduate school research or for my academic career for that matter, nor do I think I should be asked to, it is disgusting and sick that this is the expectation. I wonder, if academics in Europe have the same expectations? Do they not take their 40 days of vacation? Are they working through their generous leave packages? I doubt it. Americans work more hours per week than any other industrialized nation, and I think academics really are part of that. Maybe we should start leading the revolution toward a healthier work life balance in academia and maybe it will spread to the rest of the nation. It is out of academia anyway, that the studies have come that tell us how dangerous this lifestyle is for our health.

  2. Thank you for your post! I really felt the example you gave of Student A and Student B. We may say that we aren’t competing with each other, but it DEFINITELY happens. I have a bad tendency to overwork myself and stretch myself too thin, and I know that being in academia doesn’t help it at all. I also really appreciated the third paragraph from the end…it seems that while we have started to acknowledge overwork as a problem, but how can we fix it? How can we decide to be the ones to take breaks and get out of the system of overwork? I also don’t have any answers to this problem besides systematic changes, that I believe could start with advisors and graduate students.

  3. This is a great blog post! Unfortunately many of the career paths in which people are overworked draw in people with hardworking personality types, making them become more and more overworked as the cycle continues! I feel less overworked than I did when I taught K-12 full time, but still very stressed and with a horrible sleep routine. This has taught me how to most efficiently manage my schedule, however–and I think most graduate students will agree–it is so DIFFICULT to say no to an extra paper, class, or project when asked by a department, advisor, professor, colleague, etc. This contributes as well, I’m sure. I really like your examples.

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