The Myth of the Myth of the 80-Hour Work Week

Oof, was my first reaction. I’m so tired, was my second.

It begins with the common adage, “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!” which I first read on the hilarious Twitter feed of Shit Academics Say. Then, a comprehensive and well-presented debunking of the myth of the eighty-hour academic work week by Meaghan Duffy on Sas Confidential. Duffy claims that it is an inflated and damaging standard that discourages pursuits of higher education, especially among women.

But not so fast. Let’s examine some of the evidence Duffy provides, based on her experience in grad school in Ecology. She states:

It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. I used to count a sample, then go read an article on Slate, then go count another sample, then go read another article, etc. At the end of the day, if you’d asked what I’d done, I would have said I’d spent all day counting samples.

I don’t doubt that this is true. But allow me to provide a different experience, based on how graduate students in my department divide their time, and the responsibilities and duties expected of us. As important as it is to debunk damaging myths, it is also important to highlight that we are all not on an equal playing field when it comes to “working” in academia.

First, there is the issue of funding. In Canada, not all graduate students receive fellowships. This means, that in addition to their academic pursuits, they often work outside of academia in part-time jobs. Or they work to supplement the low stipend they do receive. Students with funding packages providing a steady and livable income without external financing are the minority. For example, I worked full-time as an office manager during my master’s degree. Without exaggeration, the pace nearly broke me. This is not uncommon.

Second, even those of us who receive funding are also teaching, and working as teaching and researching assistants. Preparing lectures, grading assignments, meeting with students, reading through archives, evaluating studies and writing reports, and all the administrative duties that come along with those jobs count as work. In my case, I receive departmental as well as federal funding to pursue my doctoral degree. Dispersed over the course of five years, it may pay all my necessary bills [I’m not homeless! I rejoice daily.], but in Canada, the amount is still below the poverty line. That’s why most grad students willingly accept extra jobs, even though it delays their own academic work.

Third, and this one is not applicable to everyone, I also sat on committees, organized conferences, presented at conferences, edited journals, and volunteered my time for various university and departmental activities. None of it was remunerated. What I invested in time and effort I received back twofold in peer and faculty support, as well as networking opportunities. This is also work.

Fourth, when writing articles or book chapters for publication (minimally remunerated so as to be inconsequential), the time we spend reading amounts to hundreds of hours per twenty-five page essay. Graduates spend chunks of ten/twelve hours per day writing under deadlines. We also, occasionally, spend time as peer-reviewers. Diligently reading and evaluation someone else’s work, providing extensive and hopefully helpful feedback.

I absolutely love teaching. I would not willingly give it up. I also enjoyed most of my extracurricular networking and volunteer work. I realize, however, that it delays progress on my thesis.

So no, I do not work eighty hours a week on my thesis. I do, however, prepare and give lectures, research and write articles, meet students, write grant proposals, respond to dozens of emails per day, and write and present papers at conferences (traveling on my own dime with only partial reimbursement). After several years of volunteer work, I learned to say “no” so as not to overextend myself. But that kind of work is also important for graduates. You gain administrative and organizational skills. Skills, by the way, that hiring committees appreciate when examining potential candidates.

And after all that, I conduct fieldwork, evaluate data, negotiate ethics boards, write drafts of my thesis proposal, and try to complete my four comprehensive exams (three written and one oral) in a timely fashion so as not to have my funding time-out before I even begin writing my thesis. I may not have to work eighty hours a week, but not keeping up a steady pace creates more issues down the line. Will I, like so many of my classmates, have to be writing a thesis and working a full-time (usually non-academic) job at the same time, in order to keep a roof over my head when the funding runs out?

So, my question is, does the myth of the 80-hour academic work week apply only to students who have enough external funding to be entirely unhampered by the surplus of expected duties, responsibilities, and extracurricular work? Because it sure feels like it. We are exhausted.