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The Black Hole

Working 60 hours a week does not automatically make you a good researcher

Some people need to be pushed to achieve their best work, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

BY DAVID KENT | JUL 03 2020

When I was young, I was always inspired by people who dedicated their energy and enthusiasm to building something. Whether it was a small business owner working around the clock or an athlete honing a skill to make the big leagues, these were the role models that made me want to try harder and be a better version of myself. There was obviously some survivorship bias going on, but I hadn’t yet recognized that.

In this same vein, I’ve just finished watching The Last Dance, the Netflix/ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan’s professional sports career. Some parts are inspirational – Michael Jordan was an amazing talent that revolutionized the image of basketball and he became the centerpiece of a winning dynasty. He willed his team to victory and battled through some tough personal circumstances amidst constant media harassment. Some other parts are really uncomfortable – including Michael punching Steve Kerr in the face during practice – it becomes clear that Jordan demanded the absolute best from his teammates. The stories were varied in the documentary, but several teammates concluded (retrospectively, at least!) that he drove them to become better versions of themselves, despite it feeling pretty awful in the moment. Scott Burrell was one such player, saying:

“I mean, I don’t want people to think he’s a bully. That he’s a mean guy. He’s just driven to win. And there are no free rides, and I did not expect a free ride in Chicago.”

Then it hit me… these words could easily be echoed by that of a graduate student reflecting on their PhD or postdoc supervisor. Some supervisors push you to become harder workers, better scientists and better people. And a PhD is rarely described as a free ride. Again, though, we tend to speak to the survivors and there are most certainly some supervisors who would be classified as bullies.

At this point I think it’s important for me to be clear that I am not advocating for longer working hours in research labs. I acknowledge the decades of research that have documented the physical and psychological damage that can be wrought by over-working, and the frequent inability to be able to know when you are pushing yourself too hard. An excellent article by David K. Smith highlights a number of these issues and other important reasons why we shouldn’t enforce a long hours culture. (Side note: he also suggests management training for group leaders and second mentors for postdocs). I further agree with Dr. Smith and his assertion that “productivity should be key” as opposed to a particular style of working, and that there is a common mistake made by scientists to simply encourage their research teams to “work hard/harder.” It is clear that we need to find much better ways of assessing the quality of a researcher while also recognizing the mentors who help create a diverse workforce.

Despite my strong agreement with these points and recent efforts to change research culture, I am conflicted by my own personal experience in becoming a scientific group leader. For me, inspiration came from people who worked hard to earn something (e.g., Michael Jordan) and I feel the best about myself after achieving something through hard work (even if the work itself isn’t always particularly rewarding). Jonathan, who co-writes the Black Hole with me, is also a source of inspiration – he has an incredible work ethic and energy for wanting to drive new ways of thinking and improving on the status quo. In turn, this motivates me to write more and to engage with more issues.

On top of this, the times I find myself struggling most are when I am overexposed to negative thinking and apathy. I am at my lowest in a room full of people saying that something is not possible. Overall, it seems that the system that has pushed me to achieve more has been beneficial  – but perhaps I am simply a testament to what Dr. Smith describes as: “those that survive the system will look very much like the last generation of scientists — predominantly white, socioeconomically advantaged males.”

So, where does this leave us? If we discourage people who work many hours from celebrating their achievements, we may lose potential role models or sources of inspiration. On the other hand, if we celebrate these scientists in a way that convinces us that the only road to success is via long hours, we are doing a great disservice to science and scientists while also excluding large parts of society from participating in academic research.

A small part of me worries that scientists who work long hours will be actively dissuaded from doing so. Excellence comes in all shapes and sizes and my greatest disappointment would be to see us discouraging it. But, maybe I was brainwashed as a kid and still want to “be like Mike” – someone pass me a Gatorade.

PS: For those interested, in preparing this article, I also came across some excellent advice for “How to be an academic without working 60 hours a week” – there are some great tips there!

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Dominick Grace / July 15, 2020 at 10:15

    I suspect that a high percentage of academics work 60+ hours/week, not because they are choosing to put in the extra hours and labour to achieve, but simply because the notion that being an academic is a 40 hours/week job is pretty much laughable, no matter what your pay stub says about your hours of work. I don’t know that it’s realistic to expect people to teach a full load (I know that what constitutes a full load varies from institution to institution, and possibly even from department to department), meet one’s service obligations, and be a productive researcher in 40 hours/week, even with one non-teaching term per year. It’s not so much that one can choose to work longer hours (though one certainly can) as it is that the culture of the academy demands longer hours just to meet minimum expectations.

  2. Corinne Hoesli / July 16, 2020 at 11:58

    I look at some of my colleagues that are more time-efficient and admire them; yet personally I don’t feel that I would be competitive or reach my goals without the extra hours. It makes me think of the students that require extra time to finish exams through the office of students with disabilities. I feel like we should perhaps consider the 60-hour work week some (or most) academics need as a similar accommodation. Maybe others can do the work in 40 hours. So far and since I was a graduate student, I have felt that I need the extra time. What I personally value more is the fact that my career allows me to have very flexible work hours. I would be a lot more miserable in a 40-week 9-5 job where I have to punch in and out.

    However, it’s important to recognize that it is a marathon and not a sprint – to know our minds and bodies to know when we need to take time off and recharge the battery.