February 3, 2010

Getting it done in 40 hours: How expectations that junior faculty should work 80 hours a week normalizes being over-worked

I have been reading with great interest the advice columns of my colleague and friend, Kerry Ann Rockquemore at Inside Higher Ed. In these columns, she lays out several key strategies for tenure track faculty to achieve tenure without “losing your soul.” I find her advice to be sound and highly readable.

However, many of the comments below her posts suggest that it is impossible to achieve tenure without abandoning your family responsibilities, dumbing down your classes, and over-working yourself to the point of exhaustion. These comments are indicative of a common discourse within academia – where it is accepted that pre-tenure faculty must work upwards of 80 hours a week to be successful. I recall one of my colleagues asking me what I planned to do over Spring Break. Another senior colleague interrupted to say that, as a junior faculty, I did not have a Spring Break – surely I would be working on my research over break.

Because of the expectation that tenure-track faculty must work around the clock, I felt as though it would be inappropriate to tell them that, in fact, I had booked a cabin in the Rocky Mountains for my family for the break. I find this expectation to be detrimental and unproductive for junior faculty.

Let me first say that I am not going to deny the reality that many, many Assistant Professors do work upwards of 80 hours a week to achieve tenure. However, I also think it is possible to use some of the strategies that Dr. Rockquemore suggests in order to achieve tenure working just 40 hours a week, and that it is more productive to think of ways to achieve tenure with a reasonable work schedule than to complain about how that is impossible.

Working 40 hours a week allows you to have time for your family, to take vacations, to do things you love, and to engage in activism or take up a hobby – all of the things many people claim are impossible while you are on the tenure track. However, these are also all things that are crucial for an enjoyable life. Why should getting tenure require suffering?

People who complain that achieving tenure is only possible by over-working yourself are contributing to the problem, as opposed to looking for solutions. If we all accept that it is normal for Assistant Professors to work insane hours, then those who do will feel less inclined to find ways to do what they need to do with a reasonable schedule. And, those who don’t may feel as if they are not doing enough.

My experience has been that I can get what I need to get done in a forty hour week. In that week, I find time to make progress on my research, teach my classes effectively, and fulfill my university and national service obligations. My experience has also been that the hours that I work over forty hours a week have a seriously diminishing return on my time investment. I simply am not efficient after working eight hours. And, I am less productive on Monday if I have been working all weekend.

For these reasons, I encourage those who complain and insist that it is impossible to be successful working forty hours a week to try and figure out a way to accomplish all that you need to accomplish in an eight-hour day. I welcome your criticisms, yet hope that you will at least try it before jumping to the conclusion that it is impossible.

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