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Faculty To Grad Students: Go Work 80-Hour Weeks! 454

Posted by Soulskill
from the and-stop-doing-that-annoying-sleep-thing dept.
New submitter Ian Paul Freeley writes "Controversy has erupted after a departmental email from faculty to astrophysics graduate students was leaked. Key tips for success in grad school include: 'However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school. No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so...If you find yourself thinking about astronomy and wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours, then academic research may in fact be the best career choice for you.' Reactions from astronomy blogs has ranged from disappointment to concern for the mental health of the students. It also seems that such a culture, coupled with the poor job prospects for academics, is continuing to drive talent away from the field. This has been recognized as a problem for over 15 years in the astronomy community, but little seems to have changed. Any tips for those of us looking to instigate culture change and promote healthy work-life balance?"
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Faculty To Grad Students: Go Work 80-Hour Weeks!

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  • Med School (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ShakaUVM (157947) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:36PM (#41673599) Homepage Journal

    This reminds me of the push 10 years ago to reduce the hours inflicted on med school students and residents.

    Hasn't seemed to have made a huge difference in their workload, though.

  • by Antipater (2053064) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:37PM (#41673605)
    This sounds shockingly similar to the (possibly still-ongoing, I'm not sure) controversy over 36-hour shifts for doctors. The only real justification is "We did it when we were young, so today's young'uns should do it too! Never mind what the data says!"
  • Grad School (Score:5, Insightful)

    by readin (838620) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:38PM (#41673609)
    It's not just a job; it's an indenture.
  • by na1led (1030470) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:39PM (#41673633)
    Most of us with degrees and skills usually put in more than 40 hours a week in our work. We do it because we enjoy the work, the pay is good, and our employers give us time off when we want it. Besides, it doesn't mean your stuck behind a desk for 10-12 hours a day. Many of us take our work on the go, or do some of it from home.
  • by ranton (36917) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:39PM (#41673637)

    I guess most people just don't like to hear that some of us enjoy our careers enough that it is one of our primary hobbies. I easily spend 60-80 hours working on some software development related task (even if it is just reading a book), and I don't consider myself overworked.

  • Supply and Demand (Score:5, Insightful)

    by readin (838620) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:41PM (#41673667)
    "It also seems that such a culture, coupled with the poor job prospects for academics, is continuing to drive talent away from the field."

    Good. That's what is supposed to happen. The truth is we don't have a need for a large number of astronomers. If we did then there would be more job prospects. Since we don't have the need, it's good that talent is being driven to other fields where there is greater need. Those who love astronomy so much that they can't work anywhere else and are willing to put in the long hours - those people can still work in astronomy. Those less committed can go make themselves more useful elsewhere. Supply and demand is not just a good idea, it's the law.
  • by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:46PM (#41673729) Homepage Journal

    While producing your thesis!

    Watch faculty position offered to applicant from China or India!

    Win!

  • by ohnocitizen (1951674) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:46PM (#41673739)
    Bosses love to hear it. Employees like you are easier to exploit. More work for less pay. Employees like you also make it easier to pressure other employees into similar behavior.
  • As a code addict, I see nothing wrong with doing what you love +80hrs per week. Last I checked I was at ~108 hours per week of coding, it's what I do for fun & profit and I've been doing it since age 8 -- If people want to pay me for doing it, well that's just awesome. (repeat sentence with subject as: sex/masturbation, shopping, drugs, etc. instead of code until you "get it").

    I talked to a girl the other day who works in the mortgage industry managing compliance with government regulations in 50 states... I felt bad for her because her job actually feels like Work, and mine feels like poetry/pool/hide&seek/sculpture... Anything but "work", sure at times it's tedius but I could say the same about HO scale train sets. If you feel as passionate about astronomy as I do about writing code, go for it! Don't let them keep you from "working"!

  • by rs1n (1867908) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:47PM (#41673767)
    Though it sounds insane, they probably left out the some important details. When I was a mathematics graduate student, I too spent a LOT of time thinking about mathematics -- a lot of it was for fun. Did I spend 80 hours a week thinking about mathematics? Probably not, but likely close. However, it was not as though I locked myself up in a room and had someone from the real world slide slices of pizza underneath the door so that I could do mathematics. A lot of theoretical science happens in one's mind, and that can be done anywhere, anytime. On the other hand, you could not do this if your job was to be a surgeon or pilot -- it's not the same. Mind you, all that thinking does get exhausting even if only mentally. However, if you want to ever be a "star" in anything -- sports, medicine, mathematics, etc -- you have to "practice" (i.e. put in extra time). Maybe 80+ hours per week is a bit much, but it is not completely impossible in some areas of study. Of course, you could just go the "average" route and still be "ok" in the end.
  • Re:Med School (Score:5, Insightful)

    by readin (838620) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:50PM (#41673811)
    An important difference is that the reason for wanting to reduce the medical resident workload wasn't concern for the residents, it was concern for the patients. Who wants to be treated by a resident who hasn't slept in 48 hours?
  • by pwizard2 (920421) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:53PM (#41673839)

    There's only so much budget for astronomers.

    FTFY.

    Astrology != science.

  • by Missing.Matter (1845576) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:53PM (#41673841)
    Hell no. I was in this exact position when I graduated with my Physics degree. I had a job offered to me to work at Goldman Sachs with a starting salary of $150k+signing bonus. It took a lot of soul searching, but I ultimately turned it down to pursue a Ph.D., where I get $20k a year and work the 60-80 hours quoted above, nights, weekends, and holidays (guess where I was 4th of July and Christmas Eve). But even after all that, For $130k more I couldn't buy the time I spend doing what I love each and every day. Sure I could buy boats and cars and a house, but I don't think any of that would make me truly happy as I am pursuing my passion that will one day (I hope) make a difference (as opposed to managing rich people's and corporation's money and helping them to make even more money. Oh how fun and rewarding.)
  • Tell me Professor (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Sparticus789 (2625955) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:57PM (#41673881) Journal

    So, Mr(s). Tenured Professor, how many hours a week do you work for that $200,000 salary?

  • by kevkingofthesea (2668309) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:00PM (#41673917)

    "More than 40" is not the same as "80." I've hit 60 hours in a week before, but at 80 I doubt I'd be any more productive.

  • by gl4ss (559668) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:02PM (#41673949) Homepage Journal

    40 is a far cry from 80 though.

    however.. astrophysicists? .. do they really get "more" done by working 80 hours vs 20 ? do their data analyze programs run more hours if they're at the desk more hours? is there more data available to them if they work 80 hours - will they come up with any better theories this way? do they get more hours assigned to them at their observatories?

    is there ANY benefit form them working more hours except it'll look better as in more worked hours per budget dollar on the institutions yearly report, that's the question.

    besides than that it's bullshit if they got told to work those hours or not - they most certainly were, not just on an official piece of paper because it sounds so fucked up.

  • by Missing.Matter (1845576) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:14PM (#41674085)
    I know you're half joking, but working for a number of years and returning to do a graduate degree was one option I considered. However, I came to the conclusion that it would be easier to do the phd first and go into a wall street job later than the reverse. My thought was, after 5-7 years on wall street Id be nearing 30 with perhaps a different set of priorities... Maybe a wife, maybe kids... I could never afford the time i can devote to my research now. And to be sure, a phd is not something you can do more efficiently by parallelizing the task (much like a baby didn't grow faster if more women are involved).
  • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:14PM (#41674087) Homepage

    The truth is we don't have a need for a large number of astronomers. If we did then there would be more job prospects... Those less committed can go make themselves more useful elsewhere. Supply and demand is not just a good idea, it's the law.

    That's all well and good until "supply and demand" shows us that we don't have a large need for anything except slave labor and uber-rich finance guys. Then you start to realize that it's not really about supply-and-demand in the sense of "what we need and what would serve us."

  • by JustinOpinion (1246824) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:16PM (#41674129)
    Exactly.

    The letter-to-students suggests that 80-hours should be the regular work-week, that works out to:
    16/hours a day 5 days per week, or
    13/hours a day 6 days per week, or
    11/hours a day 7 days per week.

    Assuming 7 hours of sleep, three 0.5 hour lunch diversions, 1 hour for commuting, and 0.5 hours/day for bathroom breaks, this leaves the person with about 2.5 hours/day for everything else: running errands, doing laundry, exploring hobbies, relaxing, etc. This is not a fun way to live, and it's also not a sustainable way to live/work: trying to work that hard inevitably results in people being burnt-out, constantly tired, and not very productive. This is especially true in highly-skilled jobs, where the quality of your work comes down to how alert your mind is, and how creative you are... both of which require rest, relaxation, and time spent on diversions.

    The 80-hour week is also a lie. That's not how much the professors worked when they were in grad school. No doubt they worked 80-hour weeks on occasion, and those may have even been productive weeks. But there's no way they sustained that kind of work for the entirety of grad school. When I was in grad school we all routinely worked long hours (more than 40 hours/week), and occasionally crazy hours (80 hour/weeks not at all unheard of). But students who tried (e.g. because of pressure from their supervisor) to sustain crazy 70+ hour weeks burned out incredibly quickly.

    The letter was trying to encourage the students to work hard and be passionate, which are indeed crucial for grad school. But by setting an arbitrary and frankly ridiculous rule like "80 hours/week" undermines this message.
  • Re:Get a life (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ByOhTek (1181381) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:17PM (#41674133) Journal

    Yes there is. In the cases I've seen, it's been both. They have said, if you don't enjoy it, do something else, because you keep doing it, even after you are a grad student.

  • by Hatta (162192) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:20PM (#41674197) Journal

    How do you define a "need" for astronomers? This research is completely subsidized by the government. We could do ten times as much, we could do none at all. It's completely our choice. The laws of supply and demand don't work out normally when demand is arbitrarily determined by congress.

    I suppose you'd say that the free market should fund astronomical research. Well good luck making that happen.

  • Re:truth sucks (Score:5, Insightful)

    by digitallife (805599) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:34PM (#41674409)

    The point is that if working 80-100 hours a week is the norm for those students, then many of them are going to suffer and be un healthy, and we as a society should not simply accept, condone or encourage that. I mean do the math: 100 hours of work in one week means 14.5 hours a day, every day. That's INSANE. Considering the average person needs 9 hours of sleep per night to stay healthy, that leaves them the choice of either not sleeping enough, or having 30 minutes of time away from work per day. No prob, it's just enough time for a shit and shower! You can eat while you work.

    If there's a joke here, it's that anyone thinks its ok for this to be a reality check.

  • by supercrisp (936036) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:35PM (#41674419)
    Oh that's a complete crock. My father-in-law ran a research lab for one of the world's largest electronics companies. He supervised people who won international awards for their work. They did a lot of research sitting in vineyards drinking wine, smoking, and chatting. Sure, they worked long hours too, especially at crunch times. But leisure is key to creativity. And they ate well and exercised, having cycling and skiing teams they belonged to (and still belong to as retirees). And they were all men in single-income families who were cared for intensely by their wives. They were pampered, fed, rested, exercised like thoroughbreds because that's what they were. (Not to mention Nobel winners.) In my field I have worked with internationally renowned literature scholars, people who crank out books like mad, win big grants, lecture around the globe. They work hard, but they also take care of themselves, taking breaks, eating right, exercising, etc. --- This talk of round-the-clock work, with no time for exercise, for family, it's not something I've heard from really successful people. Yes, there's crunch time, and yes, you have to work, but this "Work work and smile! Arbeit macht frei!" is the mantra of a drone or a future burnout.
  • by Crispy Critters (226798) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:39PM (#41674469)
    Dead on with your question "do they really get more done?"

    What I have seen in graduate students is lots of inability to concentrate and make good decisions on top of exhaustion and insomnia. I have seen months spent going down the wrong track because of an inability to think clearly. I have seen late nights spent fixing things that were messed up due to tiredness. I have seen students who can't get anything done in the lab because they hate grad school and can't enjoy doing anything else because they feel that they should be in the lab.

    Want proof? Look at how many graduate theses start with a 100-page literature review, covering material which is well known and not particularly important to the real research. The appropriate material would be 15 pages and lots of references. That review represents many months of wasted energy and probably lots of 80 hour weeks accomplishing nothing of value.

  • by OG (15008) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:56PM (#41674657)
    The problem is that the graduate academic system doesn't necessarily choose for the best astronomers. The most dedicated? Sure. Those willing to sacrifice family lives, the ability to start saving for retirement, and a peace of mind that they have a future in that profession? Yeah. But that doesn't mean the smartest or most talented. It means the smartest and most talented of the subset of people willing to lead such an existence. The idea that the system has to be as masochistic as it is, with people now doing post-docs well into their 30's, having no real financial stability through all of that, and being expected to make huge sacrifices in personal relationships, all for a magical goal of tenure that well over half of those people will never achieve, is flawed. The rigid system of academic levels is flawed. Advancement and reward should be based on research done, quality of publications, and recommendations, period. The stress put on students for quals and dissertations is a huge waste. It's an out-dated hazing ritual. It's a source of cheap labor. And it kills the love that many people, some of them brilliant people, have for science. I agree that there are always going to be a limited number of positions for astronomers, or for scientists in general. But I damn well don't agree that the current system is the best, most efficient system. I think it loses a lot of great talent, I think that the establishment is not recognizing that it's becoming more and more stressful, and I think it's a real shame that we're stuck in a system that was developed a long time ago for a very different world, just because it's always been that way.
  • by holophrastic (221104) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @04:57PM (#41674659)

    ...in the proper sense of the word.

    Work-life balance is important when you cut your life off in order to work. For those people who feel comfortable sacrificing their own lives to do someone else's bidding for money, then sure balancing that with spending the money is important, and 80 hours in a week is way too much.

    But those of us who feel that cutting out a part of my life just to make money is completely absurd in the first place, and that 10 hours per week is equally way too much, choose instead to convince others to pay us for our hobbies. In that way, we never work a day in our lives.

    In this case, astronomy faculty are looking for the latter. And they've stated, quite clearly, that they are willing to pay astronomy enthusiasts to enjoy life -- with all of the equipment and resources available.

    So quit complaining. Start by quitting the job that you clearly hate. Figure out what you actually enjoy doing (that contributes something of value to someone) and get paid for it.

    Everything from raising children to painting counts. There is an endless supply of hobbies that pay. Gardening counts too. Raising fish, breeding jellyfish, driving just about any type of vehicle.

    Why'd you ever choose a job that wasn't something you already enjoyed doing?

  • Re:truth sucks (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Billly Gates (198444) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @05:05PM (#41674755) Journal

    A real reality check on life.

    If you want to get ahead the answer is easy. WORK! - Larry Winget (mentioned here [amazon.com].

    I am not affiliated with him in anyway nor promoting him other than I am a fan. The fact is you get rich and success by working hard. Does that mean 80 hours a week forever? No. But for 2 years yes. I plan to work 60 - 80 hours a week just for a 38k a year teaching job this January. I have too to get ahead to pass all my exams and courses as well as teach at the same time for a special program. I have classes at night and the weekends which are 2 years worth of teaching classes for non education majors crammed into 9 months!

    To start a business ... need I say more? To be a lawyer how many hours? In this economy you are expected to work these hours if you want to keep your job or be first to let go when the next recession hits. I am not saying it is right. I am just stating reality. To be truly excellent at what you do you need to put in serious effort. If you do that you will get ahead regardless of your career path. Same is true in IT which most slashdotters do for a living. Exchange 2013 is very different from Exchange 2003. It will take a good several months at 15 hours a week minimum on top of your sys admin job to really start to get a handle on it. If you are not willing to do it then you are incompetent.

  • Re:truth sucks (Score:5, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @05:19PM (#41674969)

    The fact is you get rich and success by working hard.

    ...and by being in the right place at the right time, and by being lucky, and by finding some rich friends to fund your business, and so forth. Most people who work hard never become rich.

    What you really meant was, "People become successful by working hard on the right things." Unfortunately, the first thing graduate students discover when they begin their research careers is that they are not going to be working on "the right things," that research work is not what they thought, and that the likelihood that their PhD work will be worth mentioning (beyond the fact that they did PhD work) is very low. Here are some characteristics of research as a graduate student:

    1. Your adviser tells you what to do, you do it, and then you publish it. Then you tweak it and publish it again. Then you tweak it and publish it yet again. Then you write 200 pages about it and get your PhD.
    2. You have an idea for something truly novel. You are told that your grant does not cover that, so you will have to either modify it to fall under the grant, or put it off for "later" (which actually means, "never").
    3. When you go home for Thanksgiving, your great aunt Sally asks you what you do. You try to make it sound cool, but it is hard to explain why it matters. You conclude with, "I am published in three journals" and everyone thinks you are a genius.

    There are exceptions, but the reality of research is that it is mostly incremental, it is mostly determined by what NSF/NIH/DARPA want to see researched, and it is loaded with overstatements of results. Most outsiders do not notice this, because the only way to learn enough about a topic to even notice this trend is to become a researcher in that field. Most graduate students are embarrassed to be part of such a system, so they convince themselves that they are not actually doing it (but they really are, with a few rare exceptions).

Programmers do it bit by bit.

Working...