28 December 2015

Time policing

Are you reading the blog post from your home or your office?

It’s the start of the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There is a lot of discussion on my social media feed today about academic work, I think prompted by this tweet:

Quick test to see if you're going to “make it” in academia: Are you working this week?

As advice, it’s dumb. Whether you’re working this week is no test of whether you will be a successful academic. Lots of people might work this week, but work on the wrong things. Like writing a blog post instead of that NSF pre-proposal... but I digress.

As a joke, it’s mean. It suggests overwork is the norm in academia, and that if you’re not working now, you are obviously inferior.

Academia has a deep and sometimes oppressive culture of overwork. There are many examples on this blog. There was Scott Kern saying colleagues lacked passion because research labs were empty on evenings and weekends. More recently, Eletftherios Diamandis wrote about how he worked sixteen hours a day, left childcare to his wife, and had his kids playing in the lobby and eating food from the microwave – and this was in a career advice column as an exemplar of success.

Put that attitude together in a person whose position gives them a fair amount of power and minimal oversight – like someone in charge of a grad student or post-doc – and you have the potential for stressful, terrible situations where people work like dogs because they think there is no alternative.

That said... I am a bit concerned by the potential for time policing that’s hinted at in the reactions to this tweet, and in similar situations.

First, a lot of people outside of academia have to work the week between Christmas and New Year’s. For most people, suggesting that you work this week is not something that only a Dickensian factory owner would say. That is is even an argument could contribute to the perception among non-academics that academics are overpaid, lazy fat cats.

Second, we should be careful about criticizing academics who do choose to work this week. There are many reasons to do so.

I have animals that need feeding and looking after. It’s my job to look after them. I don’t like the implication that I’m contributing to a workaholic culture because I’m doing animal care.

There are also externalities that work against taking this week off for many people. For instance, for biologists, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting is held in early January. The deadline for many National Science Foundation pre-proposals is in January. Yes, in theory, people are well organized to have completed all those proposal and presentations and posters before Christmas, but in actuality, for real people, this is a good time to do that work.

And that sort of leads into my biggest point. Is it so bad to like what you do? SciCurious wrote:

Well, I mean...it doesn't help that I...enjoy work. A lot. Part of academic conditioning?

I’m reluctant to admit that I am in the office writing this post, and that I’m happy about working this week. I like the quiet. I like that I don’t have meetings or deadlines. Yet if you’re an academic who likes working more than 40 hours a week, you can be tagged as part of the problem and a victim of mindwashing. For instance:

Nobody dies wishing they published one more paper.

We’re expected to resent work. Mike Rowe talks about this, based in part on his experience on the TV show Dirty Jobs (emphasis added):

We’ve declared war on work, as a society, all of us. It’s a civil war. It’s a cold war, really. We didn’t set out to do it and we didn’t twist our mustache in some Machiavellian way, but we’ve done it. ... We’ve waged this war on Madison Avenue. I mean, so many of the commercials that come out there – in the way of a message, what’s really being said? Your life would be better if you could work a little less, if you didn’t have to work so hard, if you could get home a little earlier, if you could retire a little faster, if you could punch out a little sooner – it’s all in there, over and over, again and again.

A job well done is rewarding. It’s rewarding to be able to look back and see that you have created a body of work. Some people might die wishing they had created more, or done more professionally, or solved an unanswered question. Why should regrets about unfinished things be confined to the personal, non-work realm?

We do have to be careful not to let that desire to work become a macho bullshit test of endurance. In academia, feeling guilt over not working is almost infinitely more common that feeling shame about working when others are not. The expectation that research academics should work long hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays, is the bigger problem.

But you shouldn’t be made to feel embarrassed if you’re working this week and you’re happy about it. While we’re pushing back against a very real culture of overwork, let’s not forget how great it is to have work that is fulfilling.

Update: I’m tempted to characterize this as another example of work shaming:

Maybe the most relevant answer to academic productivity discussions on Dec 29th is “Nobody cares, go get a life.”

More additional: Post edited for emphasis and clarity, prompted by Julie Brommaert.

Related posts

My new work week
Why cure disease?
Glorifying overworking: another self-inflicted crisis in Science Careers

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