The work-life balance: How many hours do Professors work?

Last week I wrote a post about ingredients for success in Academia, and I thought I would follow up this week by examining, in detail, my ‘work week’.  It’s also timely given discussions I have been having with my own students, and about some recent blog posts about time, projects, and the big balancing act of Academia.

I was really curious about how I spend my time:  sometimes it seems that I work ALL the time, and I am constantly feeling pulled in various directions – how much do I really work ? Perhaps more relevant for aspiring Academics:  is it possible for Academics to find a some kind of reasonable work-life balance?   Is it possible to have a family and outside activities and interests and still be successful in your job?

A quick look on-line shows quite a range of opinions on the topic.  You can go back to a publication in 1942 by W.W. Charters.  In this piece, the median hours per week for a Professor was 58 hrs (yikes!) with Associate Professors reporting 52 hrs per work week, and Assistant Professors clocking in at over 60 hrs per week.

More recently, in a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins discusses a question he fielded during a panel discussion about academic careers: How many hours would you estimate that you work each week?

Here is some relevant text that formed the response:

Both the professor from the liberal-arts college and I said that we spend about 50 – 55 hours per week at our jobs…The professor from the midsize university, who has two toddlers at home, seemed almost apologetic when she noted that right now she “only” works about 45 hours per week, but that she’s looking forward to being able to do more when her children start school. And the research professor from the host university, who runs a large laboratory, topped us all when he noted that he spends upwards of 70 hours per week on campus.

What is most striking in that paragraph is the variation in responses!  And, of course, much depends on how you define ‘work’, and the overall context (Young family at home? Running a large research laboratory?).  I would, however, be curious if the perception of those hours is actually true, i.e., if the hours were quantified.

In a project similar to mine, Philip Nel tracked all his work hours for a week, and determined he worked 60 hours.  That being said, he does discuss how his pay is for nine months (unlike mine, which is for 12), and those nine months are much more intense than the three summer months. Nevertheless, 60 hours per week seems like a lot!

With these thoughts in mind, I decided to track my work week (to the nearest 0.5 hr) from Monday to Friday of last week. I also classified work time into four areas:  Research, Teaching, Service, and Miscellaneous.

Research is a pretty obvious category – this is time devoted to my research program, including grant-writing, meeting and discussing with graduate students, editing manuscripts.  Teaching is focused on preparing and teaching my main undergraduate course this term (a field biology course, with one 4-hour lab and one 1-hour lecture per week), and I organize a graduate level journal club.  Service includes my administrative work for the University (e.g., Faculty committees) as well as my editorial work (I am the Editor-in-Chief for The Canadian Entomologist) and committee work for the Entomological Society of Canada.   These three categories are the pillars of Academia and are typical for most University Professors.

I also had to include a category called “Miscellaneous” – this is for various tasks that don’t fall neatly into one of the other three categories.   Typically, I seem to spend a fair bit of time answering e-mails and switching back and forth between different categories:  it all got very confusing, so I decided to lump these periods of time into the Miscellaneous pile.

The results?

Here’s a screen shot of part of my week:

The Work Week (in part)

Observation 1:

Multitasking: I clearly mix things up a lot – and seldom spend a lot of time on one task.  The exception last week was grant writing, as I did manage to devote some blocks of time to that task (I have a pretty big grant application due before month’s end), and I had to do a big lab clean-up.  I am, generally speaking, unable to keep working on one thing for long periods of time, and switching categories occur many times in a single day.  This is one reason why time management skills are essential for success in Academia!

Observation 2:

The research/teaching/administration balance:  At a research-intensive University, such a McGill, there is certainly a high expectation on research productivity.  Some weeks it feels that I never spend any time doing research (and I fully admit that my actual ‘laboratory’ time working on a microscope is limited), so I was quite pleased that over 40% of my time was in this category.  The second largest category was teaching at just below 40%.   This can be highly variable depending on the Academic term.  Some terms have more intensive teaching demands, and I’m sure that at those times, Teaching could easily exceed 50% of the time.   If teaching a new course, development of lectures and content is also time consuming, and would push the Teaching category well ahead of Research.   For me, I am teaching a course that I have taught before, and have a relatively light teaching load this term, so it makes sense that it is below 40%.

Research: Teaching: Service

I spent relatively little time on ‘Service’, but this is quite variable by week.  For example, some weeks my editorial work for The Canadian Entomologist can take a lot more time, and some weeks I have additional committee work to do with my Faculty / University.

You often hear that at a research-intensive University, the Research: Teaching : Service split should be around 40 % : 40 % : 20 % (and these percentages are sometimes touted as being important in a pre-tenure run).  I am relatively close to this, but again, this varies depending on the time of year.

Observation 3:

Irregular hours:  With an active home life, sometimes I find myself doing an extra hour of work in the evening, or getting up early to get started on the day.  I don’t see this as an issue, or concern.  My job allows for flexibility, and it helps ensure I’m home for dinner, and able to walk my kids to school.  That being said, I think it can be assumed that Academics do not work a standard ‘9 to 5’.

Observation 4:

The work-life balance?  Although I am not providing my total hours per week (some things are just too personal….), I do work less than Charter’s median for an Associate Professor, and I am very pleased about this.  I have an active family life, and many interests outside of work.  Again, my hours are context-dependent and have varied a lot over the past ten years.  I surely worked more hours just before my tenure package was submitted, and when I’m away on a field research trip, I will easily work 10+ hours per day, for many days in a row.

That being said, I thought I worked more than what the total added up to.   Did I miss something?  What’s not included?  By in large, I have not included commuting time, and I excluded any weekend hours.  I often work several hours on the weekend – answering e-mails, and catching up on work that was missed during the week. I also excluded time writing blog posts and other social media.  This is in part because I often do these things at very strange times, and also because I’m not certain how to classify this kind of outreach activity – it’s almost too fun to call work!

Final thoughts:

This exercise could be viewed as ridiculous, self-serving, and a waste of time (especially since time is such a limited resource!).  From a personal level, however, I found it very worthwhile.  I think it’s important to do some navel-gazing now and then, and this can help to re-evaluate the work-life balance, and hopefully make changes if they are necessary.   When I first started my position at McGill, one of my mentors told me that it was very possible to be an Academic and maintain a balance with home, family life, and outside interests.  I was skeptical at the time, but after ten years, I believe he was right.

I encourage others to give this a try – see how you really spend your time.  It may give you encouragement, or perhaps lead you to a few lifestyle changes.


27 thoughts on “The work-life balance: How many hours do Professors work?

  1. I’ve done this exercise in the past and found it very illuminating. I’ll add one important point – success depends not only on the amount of time worked, but how effectively that time is used. Somebody can spend 60 hours on the job and get relatively little done because of poor organization skills or ineffectual communications, while somebody else working fewer hours is able to accomplish a lot more by maximizing the effectiveness of their time. This by done by learning to prioritize and determining the level of detail required to get the job done without spending unnecessary effort that in the long run doesn’t really accomplish much.

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  3. Why exclude weekend working? I always end up working at least some of both days/evenings. Student e-mails, preparation, grant reviews, writing… In the UK everyone has to do this exercise for a randomly allocated week, once a year. The institution-wide data are then sent up to the government agencies so they know what they’re getting for their money.

  4. I tried to do this type of analysis once, but it was too depressing. 60-65 h wk-1 was a median week during my academic career and unless I was sick, it was never less than 50 h (and often over 80 during field work or looming grant deadlines). This is still pretty much Heather’s schedule. As long as a significant part of this time was research or teaching courses in my area of expertise, I didn’t mind the 6 am to 6: 30 pm days. Actually, I loved my job. But once the job became mostly restructuring meetings, scrambling for more and more grant monies, and teaching courses in which I had little or no expertise (e.g. when a third of “Flight in Ancient and Modern Vertebrates” became open, I was asked to teach insect flight – no matter that mites aren’t insects and don’t have wings and I had no interest in aerodynamics), the job lost its allure. I can understand why some academics end up as dead wood, but I decided it was better to resign. Now I work about 45 h wk-1 (and get paid for 36.25) and have times to do things like putter around in the garden, write blog posts, and leave cranky comments.

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  6. I’m pretty certain that I will never ever ever do this analysis. I fear the results would be too terrifying. Interesting, though, that you put things such as grant-writing and lab-cleaning in the “research” category. I see the logic, and it’s sound, but I wonder how much of our “research” time is actually devoted to really DOING research (i.e. looking at critters in the lab, being in the field, thinking about ideas and questions)

  7. Thanks for all the comments!

    Matthew – yes, I think including weekends would be a great idea – a couple of hours of email on a sunday morning, for example, can start the week off in a nice way! (and increase productivity for that week). However, for this exercise, I wanted to focus on the Monday-Friday idea. It might also get a little depressing to count weekend hours (some weeks)…

    Macromite: yeah- the scrambling / chaos and multitasking can be overwhelming. However, the long field days of summer make up for it 🙂
    I am also the sort of person who thrives on “too much to do” (yeah, it’s a bit perverse, I know)

    Terry – it would be very depressing if I were to count “REAL” research activities (ie.., reading papers, discussing science [in a deep and meaningful way], writing original papers) during the normal academic term. So… I have to settle with things like ‘lab clean-up’ under that category! However, summer / field work etc. are really different, and I think those are times for real research activities.

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  9. I did something like this as an undergraduate. I found that the majority of time I thought I was studying, I was actually goofing off. I corrected that. Some years ago, I got into the mental state of dithering, always thinking I should be doing something other than what I was doing. My son asked me to take him fishing. I did so. On the riverbank it came to me that while fishing, one is not supposed to be doing anything else. Once I understood my problem, I corrected it.

    I was at a primarily teaching institution. I broke my research up into tiny tasks. Every day, regardless, I did at least one tiny task. That made my day acceptable, and eventually the research got published. I am both lazy and goal oriented. My father, who worked on horseback most of his life, had a wise saying, “If you don’t use your head, you just make it hard on your ass.” So I spend as much time as needed planning how to do things in the easiest and most efficient manner.

  10. Jim – thanks for your comment – I agree – get something done every day is a great mantra.

    I also agree re: time wasting and dithering. When I was doing my PhD, I become a lot more productive when my wife and I had our first child – nothing like a kid to re-focus priorities – this forced me to assess, quickly, how I was using my time and forced me to focus on the really important jobs.

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  12. What a fantastic post. Personally, I have found that although I do work the (standard) 37.5 hours per week, I tend to take my work home.

    The problem I find that as I work online is that much of my time is wasted, and I end up spending much of my time trying to organise my time. Study however is something I don’t waste time on and I do my best to ensure I get at least an hour a day of quality study time in, even on the weekends.

    On the above comments on multitasking, oh I totally understand where you are coming from. There are times when I am supposed to be relaxing, and the wife can practically see the code in my eyes when I am deep in thought! I can find it incredibly hard t switch off.

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  20. Howard Doughty
    Professor at Seneca College

    Back in 1984, I seem to recall, the authorities entrusted with the governance of the 24 colleges in Ontario, Canada, helped put in place a workload formula which limited the number of hours a professor might be required to work to 44 per week.

    Naturally, an hour in front of a class was credited as an hour, but thereafter matters became increasingly bizarre, with various fractions of hours being “attributed” for student evaluation, departmental meetings and a host of other duties.

    Needless to say, the formula was rigged to management’s advantage such that even with a load of five classes with 35 students in each would seldom rub up against the magical “44.”

    In order to see just how absurd the situation was (is), I was recruited along with a number of colleagues to keep a detailed and accurate record of the amount of time we actually worked. In my case, the average over several weeks was 66 – exactly 50% more than the number for which I was given “credit.”

    This topic reminds me of a letter to the editor of a local newspaper (the Toronto “Globe and Mail”) written by the late an much lamented English professor Northrup Frye. In it he complained of a similar misrepresentation of work requirements in a now largely forgotten government document (the year would have been about 1970). In it Frye claimed that for every hour of lecturing, no less than ten hours of preparation was needed.

    I am sure that an inspired and inspiring lecturer like him would, indeed, commit that much time. I am not sure that everyone did or does. Nonetheless, that 10:1 ration is far closer to the truth for anyone teaching in a college or university worthy of the name!

    That point, however, is moot. Postsecondary education is no longer a collegial enterprise. It is not even an industrial enterprise. Unlike the comparatively civilized factory model, we are now being put in the corporate world of discount department stores. Associate Professors are remade into the academic equivalent of Walmart Associates.

    Welcome to K-mart Kollege!
    Delete 2 minutes ago

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  23. Hi,
    Great post! Very helpful. Keep writing because it’s very helpful for someone like me who is starting a career in ecology.
    Two questions:
    1. I am impressed by your partly-revealed weekly schedule. It’s inspirational and worth emulating. I have been long trying to balance research and teaching, and often fallen short of achieving the balance. The research suffers and immediate tasks like teaching and services get done. I was wondering if you could share your full weekly work schedule for me to get an idea about it.
    2. Do you ever think of how research should be instrumental in solving problems in the society? I entered ecology because i love nature but also because I believed that ecological research could serve as a backbone for my activities related to ecological and social activism (I am saying that without sounding naive or too full of myself). Because of this, there is a constant tussle in my mind in the job of an assistant professor. I am mostly doing stuff that has less societal implications. Sure, I am guiding and shaping young minds. And sure I am working on research questions that have some far-fetched usefulness to the society. But that alone is not enough for me. I would like to take my knowledge and understanding one step further where it could be useful in actually changing the situation. On my worst days, I feel as if my knowledge of ecology is restricted to teaching about it and writing about it, than actually doing something about it. My question is, how does one achieve that? Adding one more heading along with research, teaching and services is going to require some serious time management, and I am hoping you would comment on that, along with commenting on the urge to do something rather than merely teaching and writing about it. I know this question is a bit vague, but if you could try talking about it.

    • Thanks for your comment! I’m afraid I’m not in a position to provide am more detailed tracking of my hours, but I could consider it in the future.

      Your comment about ‘applying’ ecological knowledge to broader issues facing society is also a good one, and I discuss this a lot of my students. I think sometimes we underestimate how asking fundamental questions in ecology can lead to bigger breakthroughs that have broad relevance, and their are many examples of this. For example, initial theories about island biogeography have lead to incredible advances in conservation biology. It’s also important to note that the more fundamental questions are building blocks, and are just the beginning when it comes to applying ecological knowledge in a more applied sense. I don’t worry too much about this, to be honest, because I personally find it wonderful to dabble in both fundamental work and more applied work, but it’s notable that the balance is seldom ‘equal’ or symmetric, and comes in different forms. One class I teach is really very fundamental, but then sometimes a research project can be more applied.

      Another way to think about moving beyond the fundamental work is through using social media and online tools to discuss ecological research in different settings, many of which can involve discussions and applications across a range of fields and with a suite of stakeholders. It’s certainly one reason why I enjoy being involved with science communication.

    • 1. The trouble is that work patterns vary depending on the time of the year. As founding editor and current book review editor of The College Quarterly , I usually do about a dozen 2000-work book reviews plus an article or two every year. As book review editor of The Innovation Journal , I also write another dozen or so similar reviews, occasionally edit a special edition (most recently on “Democracy,” Vol. 19(1), 2014 and average about an article per year. Now, I have started to crank out a book chapter each year on subjects as varied as “Constitutional Challenges to Responses to Terrorism” in a booked “Violence in Canada” (Whitby: de Sitter Press, 2016) and a study of the Italian-Canadian novelist Nino Ricci in an anthology on his work (Toronto: Guenica Editions, 2016). Then, there are a half-dozen articles of various lengths for my Local Union’s newsletter and for the quarterly newsmagazine for Union leaders and activists. All of this writing comes in fits and starts. And, if I can work up the energy, I would like to finish a chapter on the American singer-songwriter Phil Ochs.

      In addition, I typically teach four classes in the Fall, four in the Spring and three in the Summer, plus my duties as a Union Steward for my Campus – something I’ve done for most of the past 30 years. And I try to squeeze in two or three conference papers, and so on and so on … So, if you can come up with a reliable formula for keeping all that straight plus the time spent preparing for classes, grading papers and meeting with students, I’d be grateful. My college, of course, insists that I work about forty hours a week – but that’s pure fabrication.

      2. I have never thought of teaching and political action as being separate. As Henry Giroux once explained to me: teaching is a moral and a political act – it is moral in that it tries to explain the difference between right and wrong, and it is political in that it tries to show how to enhance the good and inhibit the evil. Any pretense about being “objective” scholars is just cover for the implicit acceptance of the status quo. Apart from what we teach (and what we do not teach) in the classroom, we also “model” a relationship with authority in our role as education workers in a corporate setting. Acquiescence in our role as producers and reproducers of knowledge makes it clear that we are always biased – perhaps most so when we pretend not to be.

      “Doing” rather than teaching” is a false dichotomy – like the difference between “theory” and “practice.” We are always being political. As Aristotle nicely put it, we are by nature “zoon politikon” (political animals) and to exempt ourselves from political action is to “denature” ourselves – never a pretty sight. So, if you want to resolve the apparent dilemma, get involved. If your institution has a union, join it (and, if it doesn’t, start one). Volunteer to be faculty advisor to an environmental advocacy group (and it there isn’t one, start it). Work for Bernie Sanders. Work for the Green Party. Find opportunities in your local town or city (and, if they don’t exist, invent them). Write a letter to the editor of the newspaper. Become a “public intellectual.” Join or create a coalition of ecologically active people. There is plenty to do and, when you’re busy enough, you won’t be watching the clock anymore. (Of course, the authorities might start watching you … but that’s another matter.)

      Incidentally, as a septuagenarian, I am not up-to-speed on the social media so you’re on your own there.

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