Work life balance: it is OK to work hard

IMG_3103Do you ever get the feeling your career is some kind of race and others view your hard work as sneaking into a car in the middle of a marathon? Do you feel better about taking time off if you know others are doing the same? Is too much freedom the joy and the curse of academia?

A colleague of mine at Rice talked of an institution where everyone left close to 5pm and never came in during weekends. But some time into his sabbatical there he realized some people sneaked back into their offices in the evening or on weekends, closed their doors and worked madly away. Why would they ever do that, I wondered? Why not just work as you see fit? Perhaps I did not understand the strength of cultural conformity then.

In many respects the general admonishments against long work hours just don’t apply to academics because our work is so varied and what we do is largely under our control. In early spring in graduate school I often worked very long hours. I might get up at 4 AM, drive 50 minutes to Lake Travis, row across Cat Hollow to my study site, spend two hours marking and censusing wasps, just as the sun was rising and the canyon wrens began to call and the cliff swallows soared and circled. Then I might spend a few hours perched in front of a wasp nest, writing down everything they did. By lunchtime I would be back in Austin, at another population of a different species of wasps needing less attention at this time because of their colony cycle. I could search for new nests for a couple of hours then bike to campus to catch a 4pm seminar and see friends. Does that sound like a terrible day? Would I have been happier doing something else with any part of it? No. Do I work like that now? No, but might if I went back to wasps, and could give similar stories from much later in my career.

Exceptionally hard work is most possible when it is most varied. No one should hold you back. After all, it is not a race. We each bring our particular experience, ability, and interest to our projects. Work life balance should be something you choose, not something that is dictated to you. Life has its trade offs and academics are so lucky that how you navigate through them is largely your choice. So don’t feel guilty during those periods when you just can’t get away from the joy of academia.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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1 Response to Work life balance: it is OK to work hard

  1. antyscience says:

    I agree that it’s completely very OK to work hard, and indeed many people do so and work much more than the 40h/week in their contract. However, what I don’t agree with is the culture that it’s sometimes frowned upon if you choose to stick to your 40h/week contract.

    I remember talking to someone at a conference who said the professor of the lab looked as if you were an alien if you told said professor that ‘you would take the sunday off’. I was absolutely perplexed by that. You write “it’s ok to work hard”, which is entirely true, but in contrast to that it should also be ok to have a normal work/life balance. I feel that in some places that there is an entire culture around ‘tsk…that person never works on saturdays’, which is a very bad thing in my opinion. People that feel pressured to work more and more to fulfill someone else’s vision of ‘how a scientist should be’ will only get a burn-out sooner or later.

    I’m very glad my supervisor taught me to work when I feel inspired, and go home when I don’t, in order to return the next day with a fresh mind.

    Hope I’m making sense. Not a criticism to your post at all (that field work with the wasps sounds amazing even though it’s long days), but more as an extra (uninvited) opinion to it.

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