A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
10 minute read
Anyone familiar with higher education knows that academics work long hours. One study, conducted in 2014, found that faculty work more than 60 hours per week on average (roughly 10 hours/day, Monday through Friday, and another 10 hours over the weekend). The pandemic led to even longer hours as faculty pivoted to online instruction, supported students in the midst of the crisis, and performed additional administrative service to help their institutions adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
These circumstances were both unprecedented and unsustainable, causing many faculty to contemplate calling it quits: a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education in the fall of 2020 found that 43 percent of tenure-track professors seriously considered changing careers and leaving higher education.
But the culture of overwork in academia was not created by the pandemic. Faculty were working 50 percent more than the traditional 40 hour work week won by labor activists before Covid-19 turned our lives upside down. Although the pandemic made the problem of faculty overwork considerably worse (especially for women faculty and BIPOC faculty), the pandemic isn’t the root of the problem.
The problem is the mistaken belief that succeeding in academia requires excessive working hours.
In honor of Labor Day, I want to bust this myth. You don’t have to be a workaholic to succeed in academia. You can get tenure without working 60+ hours a week. You can achieve your professional goals and have work-life balance. You can love your job and take time off.
When it’s not the result of outright exploitation, the cult of overwork in academia is sustained by a fundamental misunderstanding of productivity.
Many people think that productivity means maximizing activity. This conception of productivity enjoins faculty to do more and work longer. It’s the conception of productivity that animates ‘hustle culture’ both within academia and without. However, aiming to maximize activity often leads to decreases in productivity because it involves neglecting the point of diminishing marginal returns: each additional hour of work does not contribute equally to what you produce (you can read more about this idea here). Counterintuitively, ‘rise and grind’ can make you less productive!
Instead, productivity means optimizing activity. It’s less about how many hours you work, and more about how you use your working hours. It’s less about doing more things, and more about doing the right things in the right way. Embracing this conception of productivity is how some employers have been able to move to a 4-day work week without any reduction in how much gets done.
If you’re reading this thinking: “I can’t possibly work less and get everything done!” here are six reasons why you’re probably working more than you need to be.
In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKewon explains that when the word “priority” emerged in the English language in the 1400s, it was singular: “it meant very first or prior thing” (16). In the 1900s, something happened: we started talking about having multiple priorities. “Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple ‘first’ things” (16). But there is no such thing.
The reality is, you can’t do it all. If everything is a priority, then nothing is. In order to optimize your activity, you need to carefully discern which activity or effort will make the highest possible contribution toward your goals. You can’t be a top researcher, the best teacher, and perform multiple service roles at the same time. You can’t pursue many major research projects concurrently. Every task is not equally important. Some tasks matter more than others and only a few tasks really matter. You’ve got to choose.
Instead of trying to do everything and fit it all in, optimizing your activity means coming to terms with the reality of trade offs.
Optimizing your activity means learning how to manage your time more effectively. It requires being discerning and intentional about your schedule. Instead of making choices reactively (in response to the latest emails or colleagues/postdocs/students dropping into your office for unplanned meetings), consider using a technique such as time blocking.
Time blocking is a way of intentionally structuring your daily and weekly schedule so that specific “blocks” of time are dedicated to completing a specific task or group of tasks. For example, you might block 8am-10am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for research and writing, and reserve a block of time on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for meetings. Instead of checking your email every 10-15 minutes or more, turn off notifications, schedule specific blocks of time for email, and resist the temptation to refresh your inbox outside of those times.
Perfectionism is widespread in academia. Although many faculty believe that perfectionism is key to their success (high standards = better outcomes), one study of 1258 psychology professors found that perfectionism was negatively correlated with total number of publications, number of first-authored publications, number of citations, and journal impact rating. The authors propose that perfectionism “is a form of counterproductive overstriving that limits research productivity” (273). In other words, perfectionism undermines faculty success.
Perfectionism causes us to misallocate our time and energy. If you experience academic perfectionism, you end up spending far more time and effort on activities than necessary. This ultimately diminishes your productivity. For example, you might spend 40 hours revising a journal article when 16 hours would have been sufficient. That’s 24 fewer hours of work for other tasks or rest.
Remember the 80/20 rule. For any given event or activity, 80% of outcomes result from 20% of causes. In other words, outputs are not proportional to inputs. A small proportion of causes, inputs, or efforts generates the majority of outcomes, outputs, or results. Therefore, one way to combat perfectionism is by learning to think 80/20: once you’ve hit the point of diminishing marginal returns on a task, remind yourself that additional hours of work are not going to yield major improvements. Your time is better spent doing something else, whether that’s working on a different task or taking a break. (Some other resources on overcoming perfectionism can be found here, here, and here).
It is really hard not to compare yourself to others in academia; so much of academic culture (e.g., use of the h index) perpetuates unhealthy comparison and competition. But it’s important to cultivate incredulity. I learned pretty early on in graduate school that keeping up appearances is not just for teenagers who spend a lot of time on social media. Faculty do it too, even those who wouldn’t be caught dead on #AcademicTwitter.
Studies have found that people tend to overestimate (or exaggerate) how many hours they spend working (perhaps because they don’t want others to think that they are lazy or irresponsible). One study found that the more hours people claim to work, the more inaccurate their estimates. Hilariously, when participants were asked to estimate how much time they spend on all daily activities within a week (e.g., work, cooking, cleaning, sleeping, watching TV, etc.), their estimates often added up to more than 168 hours (7 days x 24 hours = 168).
All of this is to say: if your colleagues and mentors claim to be working 75 or 80 hours a week, take their estimates with a grain of salt. They’re probably working less than they say/think that they are, maybe even significantly less. Moreover, even if they really are working that much, they may be laboring under a mistaken conception of productivity (maximizing activity rather than optimizing activity). Don’t do as they say or as they do: chart your own course by working smarter not harder.
Action bias is the tendency to prefer action over inaction, even when you have no evidence that action promotes better outcomes than doing nothing. It just feels better to do something rather than doing nothing–often because action gives the illusion of control. But in many instances, action is either unproductive or counterproductive: your time would be better spent by doing nothing (or doing something that feels like doing nothing, e.g., taking a nap). Action bias might lead faculty to work more than they need to because not working just doesn’t feel right.
Remember that just because action (e.g., conducting a literature search, rewriting an abstract several times, conducting additional experiments) feels better than inaction, doesn’t mean there is a good reason to act. To the contrary, inaction might be the best option. Give equal consideration to action and inaction, and use the 80/20 rule to evaluate which is the better option.
Working less can be scary because it often feels like giving up control. But in many cases, the feeling of control is only apparent. It is better to address your underlying anxiety directly (e.g., by seeing a therapist or coach) rather than pushing it away through work.
Sometimes, I worry that the workaholism endemic to academia is less about getting work done and more about performing our commitment to our professions, as though anyone who works less than 60 hours/week is not really dedicated to being a biologist, or a philosopher, or an historian etc.
A friend once told me that she was encouraged by a writing coach at the prestigious university where she held a tenure-track appointment to see her research and writing time as “me time.” Um, sorry, but no. Research and writing is work and work isn’t “me time,” even if you love what you do. Being a professor can be an amazing job, but it’s still a job and we would do well to think of it that way.
You can enjoy your work without working all day, every day, and wanting to do something other than work (and/or wanting an adequate salary for one’s work) doesn’t entail anything about your emotional or professional investment in it. Wanting to take a break from work is normal and healthy. In fact, working too much can lead to burnout, and burnout involves feeling detached or disengaged from your work. In other words, working non-stop can undermine your love for your work. As with romantic relationships, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Instead of endlessly pursuing productivity “hacks” or railing against hustle culture without fundamentally changing your relationship to work, you can achieve greater work-life balance by altering your conception of productivity. Being productive does not mean maximizing activity, it means optimizing activity. In fact, aiming to maximize activity is often counterproductive because it involves working beyond the point of diminishing marginal returns (i.e., working very long hours but accomplishing very little).
Succeeding in academia doesn’t require working excessively. There are several reasons why you may feel like you can’t work less: you may have too many “priorities” (if everything is a priority then nothing is) or need to hone your time management skills (these aren’t typically taught in graduate school). Moreover, perfectionism, comparing yourself to others, action bias, and the misconception that you’re insufficiently dedicated to your work if you don’t do it all the time can also lead faculty to workaholism.
But these obstacles are not insurmountable. You can have work-life balance on the tenure track by working smarter not longer.