Dear Christine: Do PhDs really have to work 90 hours a week?

There’s no doubt that twitter is a great place for academics to vent (or humble-brag) about our daily lives. But does it really represent the life of a PhD student accurately? Below is a question I received about the workload during a PhD:

I was wondering how you felt the workload was in grad school. I’ve been hearing a lot of “6 days a week”’or “90 hours a week” and the like, and having a chronic illness, that kind of schedule worries me. Is that something you’ve found to be true, that you have to be able to handle that kind of long, heavy workload? (I’m hopeful there are people who have found that to not be the case— I’d really love to try for a PhD!)

Well, the answer to these questions is that it depends. While there is certainly the opportunity and oftentimes the pressure to work over 50 hours a week, there are some fields and some environments where a 40 hour week (or less!) can be highly productive. Take neuroscience as an example: I know folks who work in computational or cognitive neuro labs where most of the work can be done on a computer or even just within one’s mind. In this case, students can often work from home and accomplish a day’s worth of work in just several hours. Systems neuroscience, on the other hand, requires a lot of surgical preparations and mindless manual labor that must be done in the lab. There are some kinds of research that can be done in very little time, but others do have a linear relationship between hours worked and data generated.

However, my entire research career has been in systems neuroscience labs and over time I’ve become a much more efficient worker. What used to take me 8 hours can be done in 5. When this magical improvement in efficiency happened around the 3rd year of my PhD, I was met with a choice. Do I continue to work 50+ hours a week and get more done or do I get the same amount of work done and work a normal schedule of 40 hours a week? I chose the latter and have a very healthy work-life balance. Some of my more ambitious peers continued to work extra hours as they improved in efficiency and their work should pay off with a more impressive research project. I am okay with doing the best research I could do in 40 hours and spend the rest of my waking hours on other fulfilling projects.

There is also a drop-off in efficiency if one is overworked and exhausted. Almost every mistake I’ve made in grad school can be traced to a lack of sleep. This is why I never compromise on sleep - losing an hour or two of sleep can cost me an entire day’s work of making up for mistakes.

People who have chronic illnesses are likely already very good time managers and efficient workers due to a better sense of your limits. Every person has a threshold for how many hours they can efficiently work in a day. You might be going into your PhD with much better work habits than me and know exactly how much time you have to get work done and make sure you don’t waste any of it. I have no doubt that people who have chronic illnesses or other factors that limit their time in the lab (family obligations, extra work for financial security) can excel in science, but it does take good time management and the ability to find advocates. There are some environments that will be very accommodating to your needs and others that will be very toxic. Being able to find a good lab mentor and graduate program will be extra important, along with choosing a research field that suits your passions and needs.

Even field work, with its arduous physical demands, can be done by people with physical disabilities. Gabi Serrato Marks is a geophysicist at MIT and she explores caves to analyze stalagmites. She also has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which is incredibly painful and exhausting yet is able to do top-notch research AND advocate for improved accessibility in the sciences. You can learn more about her experiences through her STEM + Disability video series that we funded through the Two Photon Art small scicomm grants!

In conclusion, there are definitely people who do work that much, but not everyone does and if you work smart, you can get the same amount of work done in fewer hours. There are ways to get a PhD while respecting your body and boundaries!

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