Do scientists work too hard?

A recent article in Academe Online had some startling numbers that I had long suspected, but wasn’t able to back up with data until now.

Over half of scientists surveyed–regardless of gender–reported they work 50 hours a week or more.  This work-intensive lifestyle is one of the most frequent topics students (grad and undergrad) ask about when they see how haggard all their professors look.

I think this statement from the article is quite true:

Universities have developed over the past two hundred years to fit men’s lives, both as faculty members and as students. From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, university professors were predominantly men—with stay-at-home wives who organized and cared for the household.

One of the reasons I jumped off the tenure track was that it was not a healthy choice for me, a person with a disability. I don’t, frankly, think it’s a healthy choice for very many people, aside from a few superstars who thrive on stress. An academic life can be wonderful…but too often it’s a toxic environment.

Too much work/too little time is a problem with academia, and also a problem for Americans in general, since Americans have little or no vacation time, compared to other developed countries.  The Academe Online article caught my eye because it  actually was about the role of housework in adding to the burdens of female scientists:

“female scientists do nearly twice as much housework as their male counterparts. Partnered women scientists at places like Stanford University do 54 percent of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry in their households; partnered men scientists do just 28 percent. This translates to more than ten hours a week for women— in addition to the nearly sixty hours a week they are already working as scientists—and to just five hours for men.”

This pretty much validates what I’ve been hearing from friends for many years. While some women have wonderful husbands that help with parenting and housework, most of them still do the heavy lifting around the house.

When you combine this information with the recent National Academies publicationGender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty“, you realize just how important home/house work can be.

In every science field they measured, the proportion of female applicants for tenure-track jobs was significantly less than the number of women completing PhDs in that field. Women received 45 percent of the Ph.D.s in biology awarded from 1999 to 2003, but they accounted for only 26 percent of applicants to tenure-track positions.  Same story in Chemistry –36% of PhDs earned,  18% of applicants for tenure-track positions.

In every field, women were underrepresented among candidates for tenure relative to the number of female assistant professors.  In chemistry, for example, women made up 22% of assistant professors, but only 15% of the faculty being considered for tenure.

I hear–often–from grad students “I don’t want to work in academia because I want to have a life/family/kids.”  I hear it from both men and women.

What does it mean for Academia that some of our best and brightest see it as a machine that grinds up lives and spits out bitter, tenured dead wood?

20 thoughts on “Do scientists work too hard?

  1. On housework: Doing 54% of housework is closer to parity than I would have expected. And if male and female scientists were exclusively marrying each other, those numbers would add up to 100%. They don’t, which implies that many male scientists have non-scientists spouses (presumably working much less than 50 hours/week on average) who pick up the bulk of the housework.

    The big issue here seems to be that female scientists who might want to marry a stay-at-home dad have trouble doing so. Or, quite possibly, they aren’t attracted to any of the men who would consent to such an arrangement. Successful men tend to be much more willing to marrying low-earning, low-status women than successful women are to marry such men. People who already have their own career often don’t want to give it up to be a full-time parent.

    Is money the primary obstacle preventing dual-career couples from outsourcing more housework to hired help? Or do logistical inefficiencies or perhaps social conventions impede them from doing so?

  2. If male scientists only have to do 28% of the housework compared to 54% of the female scientists, that translates to a lot of time–even the most egalitarian of households still put women at a disadvantage in terms of free time.

    And this study doesn’t even begin to address the time demands of single parents–which are mostly women.

    The bigger issue for me is that we have this massive loss between BS and PhD and Tenure track–that’s a lot of lost time and effort. From talking to students, only about 20% of our current grads even are considering Academia as a career–and it is a second or third choice.

    I think having kids is something that makes *both* men and women think twice about pursuing a career that is known for long hours. It is never easy to find balance between life and work.

    To be fair, this is an issue that is full of privilege; only a select few in the world will have this problem.

    Stoney is probably reading this and thinking “50 hrs a week? I wish!” and going to muck out the pigs :)

  3. 50 hours a week sounds low to me, but that’s coming from a grad student. My guess is, if you break that down, it’s even worse for early-career folk. I’m sure not-yet-tenured faculty work more than those who have already received tenure (less pressure for productivity). I’m sure post-docs are pretty bad, and as a grad student, I often put in 80 hour weeks, but if I’m working less than 50, I feel like I’m not doing enough. However, if I work much more than that, I feel like most of my hours are fairly unproductive. I think 40 GOOD hours would be better than my 80 hour insane weeks, but well, if I’m not there, I feel guilty.

    My husband and I are trying to negotiate a deal re: housework. It involves if both of us work, once we reach point X (in terms of being comfortable with necessities), help with house cleaning work goes pretty high on the comforts list.

    But in response to the title, YES scientists work too hard.

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  5. Rocket–to tell the truth, 50 did seem low to me too. That would be a very good week for me.

    But it’s an average–so I suppose I take comfort that somewhere, someone is working normal hours.

  6. I’m married to an academic and when we both had academic jobs we both would average 60-65 h wk-1 and often approach or exceed 80 during exams, postgrad funks, field work, or complicated experiments. However, we each cooked and cleaned the dishes 3 nights a week and foraged for leftovers on the other. As for other housework – haha – (except for weekly laundry and taking out the trash) every month or two before a party or a guest arrived we had a cleaning frenzy and that was about it.

    Now that I’m trying to live a more sane existence (aka 40 h week), I’ve found that (a) I do almost all the cooking and dishes, most of the laundry, and am the only one to ever clean the bathrooms; and (b) I fill up my ‘relaxation time’ with other onerous duties that once seemed relaxing hobbies.

    My conclusions (and except for deadwood, my concurring observations of other biology academics) are (a) that obsessive people are attracted to academia (at least in the sciences) and (b) that gender has little to do with who does the housework – it is more who is at home more often.

  7. When I hear about women doing the bulk of the housework the first question that comes to my mind is “who decides what’s necessary?”. Do these studies control for that fact that women and men often have very different ideas about what actually needs to be done? I’ve been married for almost 30 years, do quite a lot of the cooking and cleaning, and have observed that most of the disputes my wife and I have about housework seem to involve different views of the end result. We both care about cleanliness and convenience but she cares much more than I do about appearance. Am I a slacker if I’m unwilling to put in extra time to achieve her vision?

  8. I worked in the public sector for 5 years before deciding to return to academia…yep, I deliberately abandoned a nice 37.5 hour work week for the insanity of life in the lab/field/classroom. It’s not for everybody, but the grass is not necessarily greener elsewhere (for different reasons).

    I’ve been chewing on the second aspect of this post, about the division of household chores between genders when one or more partner is an academic. I’m the grad student/future academic, my partner works for private industry. The gender issue does not apply to us, as we are a same-sex couple. The division of labour tends to be divided along the lines of what Micheal suggested; I do chores that are important to me, while DP does chores that are important to her. We try to keep it pretty even, but it’s not always. So while the data may suggest a correlation between gender and the tendency to take on more than one’s share of the chores, it’s not necessarily causative. I think it says more about the partnership than gender.

  9. This study did try to look at same-sex couples, but didn’t have a large enough sample size to draw conclusions.

    On average, women scientists are in much more equal or balanced relationships (54%) than male scientists (28%). I think some of you are missing that point–women do have good partners.

    The researchers were saying that the large difference between the balance of work gives male scientists an advantage.

  10. My wife and I are both PhD students in Biology, and this issue of time demands is one we’re grappling with. Especially now that we have a son. We don’t want to spend 60-70 hours working every week until we get tenure. Not when that time comes at the expense of family time. We’re both lucky right now to have research projects and supervisors that allow us to work at home a lot of the time, but we may not be so lucky in the future. We both enjoy teaching and research, along with the many benefits of academia (e.g., control of your own research program, job security, etc.), but we don’t enjoy the long hours associated with academia (at least not for both of us).

    I wish universities allowed more flexibility in the positions they offer. For example, part-time faculty are extremely rare but such positions could be beneficial to everyone involved. People who only want part-time employment (e.g., parents) could get the work they want and the department would expand its research and teaching breadth for a fraction of the cost of a full-time faculty member. This is just one way that universities could benefit from tapping into a large market of highly-trained personnel who have a lot to offer but choose non-academic positions that offer greater flexibility and work-life balance.

  11. 50 hours a week lab time is probably normal for me, but then I’m an undergrad still :) And I’m guessing ‘lab time’ doesn’t include paper reading, revision, essay writing, lectures and seminars.

  12. Thanks for posting about this, Bug Girl. I work about 45 hours a week. When I’m not working, I try not to waste time or energy feeling like I should be working. Sometimes I work much more than that, and sometimes much less. I think I have made good progree so far in grad school. There are many other things in my life that are important to me and I hope that I am able to find a career when I finish that allows me similar livability with the hours of work expected. 80 hours a week sounds like way too much on a regular basis.

    Also, to respond to what Michael said, my husband and I always run into the “what’s necessary?” debate. That’s always at the root of the problem- I often want things to be cleaner than he does. We have figured out how to deal with our differences in threshold of dirt tolerance over the years. I bet that women tend to have lower thresholds of dirtiness. I wonder why? Is it a cultural expectation that women are generally in charge of the home and its presentation?

  13. I see the same sorts of problems as a physician. One difference is that we make a boatload more money than scientists, as a rule. The successful female physicians I know have adopted one of two strategies: They either have manual labor level husbands who are around the house a lot and are willing to fill in the gaps at home, or they have very curtailed schedules and do not work like a full time physician. This still usually means about a 40+ hour week, but not the usual 60-80 hours the rest of us do. I have long thought that physicians ought to exchange income for time and be satisfied with a better lifestyle and lower earning. I wish scientists were better reimbursed for their time.

  14. Yes, I do work 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week. And I do the bulk of the domestic stuff, too. But I don’t have to put up with a toxic work environment. Well, apart from shovelling a lot of pig and poultry muck.

    I used to work in the media and earned what, on the surface, was an extremely good salary. However, when that salary was divided into the 80-hour weeks I was expected to work (as opposed to the 40-44 hour weeks I was contracted to work), it wasn’t that well paid after all. And if people think academia is bad for toxic workplace politics, shift over to the media industry. And if you want the worst of the worst, try TV and/or fashion journalism.

    As for the male/female workload, the OH and I sat down some years ago to thrash out how we’d handle things—with no assumptions.

    The outcome was that I gave up the media circus (with no looking back whatsoever) and got to have a croft, livestock, crops and the like. I took on all the cooking, the majority of the house cleaning, about half the laundry, all the ironing, management of the domestic budget, all the financial aspects of the farming side, and 80% of the childcare (as in time alone managing the boys instead of shared family time).

    The OH got to pursue her teaching career and her academic studies (two master’s degrees now). She pays the mortgage and meets the other domestic bills, does the washing up, half the laundry, helps out with cleaning as and when it backs up due to croft work hitting my cleaning time, 20% of the childcare, and helps with croft work in emergencies or when she feels like doing a bit of this or that.

    Many of her friends and work colleagues are quite envious, but fail to appreciate that our arrangement works because we thrashed it out in detail, stick to our respective sides of the deal, and never take the other person for granted. (Well, she does expect me to know when she needs a special treat for dinner or supper! Particularly ones involving chocolate. :D )

    And I think that’s where it goes wrong for so many couples. People make assumptions based on their culture, upbringing, and habits, then come to resent the way things pan out. I think it’s much better to tip all the baggage out on the table, sort through it all together, pick up the bits each of us like, and then work out ways of dividing up the bits we don’t like.

  15. The necessity of a work week that started at 50-60 hours was definitely one of a few reasons I decided to find a different path after completing my B.S. I wasn’t even thinking of child rearing or division of household duties so much as basic quality of life.

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