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.