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Is N_hours too much?

Update: Be sure to check out my followup to this post.

Okay, I admit it. I check my blog stats about 1-2 times a week. So let's take a look, shall we...

What tha?! What is that, a Solar flare? Check out that discontinuous spike followed by an exponential tail. Where's this coming from?


My recent traffic spike is the result of this post by Kelle Cruz, who maintains the excellent Astrobetter blog. Add Astrobetter to your RSS feed if it isn't already there.

Kelle posted a response to an "intercepted" email that originated in a Well-known Astronomy Department (WAD). Read the full email, here. The letter is a summary of the WAD's Academic Program Committee's evaluation of the grad students in their dept. The long email starts off with "In general, we are pleased with how our students are progressing through our program." From there it goes on for several pages with advice to the students, starting with a recommendation for the number of hours expected in the typical workweek of an astronomer
First, while some students are clearly putting their hearts and souls into their research, and spending the hours at the office or lab that are required, others are not.  We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work.  There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers.  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.
While I kinda want to be outraged by this statement, I find it difficult to get overly worked up. I'm a huge promoter of work/life balance and I'm a passionate advocate for grad students in our department and elsewhere. But the fact of the matter is that I can't get worked up without being a hypocrite. I put in these sorts of hours as a grad student. I did it as a postdoc. And until about last year, I was working more than that as a prof. Now it's more like 60 hours a week.

Further, while I don't track the hours of the students and postdocs in my group, I'm pretty sure they're putting in these sorts of hours. I can also tell you that they're doing world-leading research in a fast-moving, exciting field of science. Finding planets ain't easy. 

Sure, 80-100 hours sounds like crazy talk. Indeed, few of my non-astro friends understood my lifestyle when I was in grad school. They'd shake their head and say, "Jeez, why do you do that to yourself." The answer is that I loved doing what I was doing. I did, and still do, get a high from being the first human to learn something about the Universe. 

I can still recall the feeling of finding my first planet orbiting another star. That discovery came at the end of an 8-night observing run where I was the only person manning the telescope. Over those 8 days, I worked from 1pm-7am every day, setting up calibrations, operating the telescope, reducing/analyzing data, and looking at that fateful plot---that beautiful plot showing the sinusoidal time variation of a star's radial velocity in response to the gravitational tug of a planet. A planet that no human but me knew existed. That is, until I put in ~80 hours/week writing the paper after getting home from the observing run.

No one told me to apply for that telescope time, do the target selection, prep for the run, and execute the observations. No one told me to wake up early and run and check the results of the previous night's observations. I did it because it felt like Christmas morning. This is the sentiment expressed by the committee chair in that email: "No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so." Not everyone truly loves what they do. Astronomy comprises a self-selected group of individuals who tend toward something resembling workaholism. 

Am I a workaholic? I dunno. I honestly wonder sometimes. But I can tell you that I really enjoy what I'm doing. With my skill set, I could make as much or more money working a 9-5 job. I could design software at Apple or build missiles for Raytheon. Or I could work even longer, more intense hours on Wall Street, drive a $50K car and screw people out of their money for fun and profit. 

But I choose to find planets, and I frikkin' love what I do with an intense passion.

I think the intercepted email is an honest assessment of life in academia. Is the current state of affairs good or bad? That's an important discussion topic. I certainly think we could do a better job of valuing people in astronomy. We could do a much better job of giving our students, postdocs and colleagues regular, specific praise. 

My philosophy is that when you show people that they are valued---not just say it in a single sentence, but regularly demonstrate it---then they do valuable things. Departments stop working well when people don't demonstrate respect through their actions. Thus, I make it a point of looking my students in the eye and saying, "I really appreciate the hard work you put into this paper. I look back at the progress that you've made over the past year and I am genuinely proud of you. Thank you." As I write this, I realize I could do this more often. We (profs) all can and should do more of this. 

Please read the entire email that was sent to the WAD students, and let's have an open and honest discussion of what it says and what it means for our field. There are many reforms needed in academia in general, and astronomy in particular. But let's try to set aside our outrage and be honest about the way things actually are, and what we actually do. This email is valuable for just that: it's an honest statement of how things are at well-known astronomy departments.

(There are many more points raised in that email other than the number of hours a student should work, including the proper way for students to take criticism from profs. Those points are all worthy of open and honest discussion, too. I hope to get to them in future posts.)


Evgenya said…
Hey JohnJohn,

I completely agree with you on this point... The only times I find myself really working only 40 hours per week, is when I'm doing something I don't really want to be doing. I use it as a metric for how excited I am about the current task/project/proposal. When I'm doing what something I am truly excited about, which as you say, will result in me knowing something about the Universe nobody yet knows, then putting in the "extra" hours is not a chore but a complete pleasure. And since I'm reading your blog and not working at this very moment, makes me think I'm not very excited about what I need to working on today. hmmm... *switching gears today*
Honestly, I don't believe that this type of work is sustainable. It might have felt like you worked this much, but you probably didn't. 100 hours per week is 14 hours a day, every day including weekends. Assuming you need some time to sleep, eat, and presumably shower and commute, that means you did nothing else at all for years on end. I think we all have crunch times like this (proposal deadlines, thesis writing, class preparation, etc.) but to work like this non-stop would mean you have no outside life whatsoever. (And certainly Facebook and reading blogs would be out!) This letter is saying that not only should you live such a life but you should be happy to do it or else you will deservedly fail at becoming 'one of them'. I agree that only 40 hours may not be realistic (though I would argue that's because we work inefficiently) but there is a huge difference between 40 and 80-100.
Dan said…
60 hours in a week, low pay, no benefits? Sounds like my old job operating the 2.2m for JohnJohn and Jeyhan. ;)

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