Culturing a workaholic

Feb 01 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Way way back as a wee PLS in grad school, I can distinctly remember thinking that I would never be PI material because I couldn't imagine working as hard as my advisor. Nights, weekends, holidays, didn't matter. If I sent an email I would get a response within an hour, and this was before phone-enabled internet access. The dude just worked. He has a family and they would often steal away to go skiing or boating, but if he was in town he was typing something.

I went on to do a postdoc anyway and had a second advisor with similar habits. "Great", I thought, "How am I going to pull this off?" My postdocs hours were decent, but there was rarely a time that I HAD to bring work home or work full tilt on the weekends. I did sometimes, but I was pretty successful without clocking massive hours. It was good.

I have been in my current position for 2.5 years (*shudder*) and something subtle has happened. I have progressively starting working more and more hours as layers of responsibilities have been dropped from above. I realized this weekend that my work-free days are rare, when the discussion of what we were doing over the weekend mainly centered around whether I was going to be working from my office or home. I don't know when it got to this, there wasn't a single event or moment when I decided that I needed more hours working, but after dinner and once we have read the Wee One her bedtime story, I'm off to my self-imposed basement banishment.

I don't know how else to get everything done that needs doing or keep on top of the bazillion little things that come up on a constant basis. Perhaps I'm just more inefficient with my time than others, but despite not seeing how I could work the kind of hours my previous advisors do, I'm starting to realize that it isn't really a choice. The choice is between getting things done and letting balls drop all around you. At the moment I am choosing the former, for how long I don't know.

31 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Let *one* ball drop, just for practice.

  • I've had to learn the power of saying no or telling folks that I will get to it when I get to it.

  • I've had to learn the power of saying no to stuff or telling folks that I will get to it when I get to it.

  • Dan says:

    I love it! As a new faculty member as well, I'm going to have to give this a try.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    GR, this is after a healthy amount of saying no. Somethings can't be noed.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Says the workaholic....

  • Ace K says:

    I totally know what you mean. I think I still have more work hours that I could tap into if I did not waste so much time on the internet when I do spend the endless hours on the computer trying to be productive. I think I'm saving those up for if we have a kid...

    And saying no doesn't solve it. Between teaching, research and fundraising, I feel I have 3 jobs that could take full time. So I do say no, a lot. I kinda got addicted to it once I started doing it. No, no, no, no. I'm tenure track, no.

    Still not enough hours in the day...

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    It's called growing up. When you're a kid, you are allowed to believe that certain things will be taken care of. Grown-ups realize that they need to take responsibility for taking care of these things. And that is a good thing.

  • Karen says:

    Disclaimer: I am not an academic. However, if you accustom people to heroics, they expect heroics. I agree with DrugMonkey: drop one task and see what happens.

  • Dr. O says:

    As a postdoc looking for more hours in the day, this is not making me feel better.

  • KBHC says:

    I'm at the same point as you, and I do work more and more... but I also set limits and let things drop sometimes. So far nothing horrible has happened. I prioritize my kid, my spouse and my exercise. No job is worth working through every weekend.

    I'm not saying this to be all, "It's so easy to limit work time!" I have to fight my impostor syndrome and worry about screwing up or not getting tenure every time I step away from my computer. But, my husband is an academic as well and he struggles even more than me. I wonder if the cultural push for men to be breadwinners impacts their perspective/workaholism?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Which of the following gets dropped:

    1) Applying for grants
    2) Mentoring trainees
    3) Teaching
    4) Service (including advising undergrads and three committees where my absence would be VERY obvious)
    5) Writing manuscripts

    If someone sees fat to trim, just let me know. Unfortunately, most of the balls that can drop hurt me more than anyone else.

  • Dr. O says:

    It's an interesting thought.

    My current mentor (male) works in the office almost every weekend/evenings and has his entire life. He's married with two kids, and has recently made some statements that make me wonder if he's looking back on this decision with some regret.

    My grad advisor (female) was also married with a son and just as successful, but rarely appeared in the lab on weekends. I know she looked at email, papers, etc in the evenings for an hour or two, but rarely did I get a response back until the next weekday.

    Just an observation (and exceedingly small sample size), but maybe there's some truth to this? Looking at PLS's list below, though, I have no idea what could be dropped to make it work.

  • babakubwa says:

    I think the argument would be that they aren't really binary balls that are dropped or not, or that each of the numbered items is actually a lot of little balls.

    I'm in the same situation, but I guess I could put a bit less time into (2) and a bit less time into (3), and take a bit longer per manuscript. But figuring out exactly where to sit on this grand tradeoff surface is tricky, which is part of your point.

  • Karen says:

    None of these are fatty, but when "layers of responsibility drop from above" (don't I recognize that), you might want to take a step back to see what you can delegate. Maybe you can combine mentoring with 5) and 1), at least for early drafts or tracking the papers' progress -- find trainees who want to learn how to prepare grants and manuscripts and invest time up front in that aspect of training. Does this even make sense? Regardless, delegation should occur in some form.

    There are always going to be only 24 hours in a day. Your kid gets, say, 2-3 hours; your spouse/partner deserves at least 1 hour; you sleep for 8 hours. That leaves 12-13 hours for everything else. Stick to that budget and your family life should stay fine. Heck, put personal time into your Outlook or iCal if you have to. That is advice I seem to give out constantly and never seem to take...

  • Namnezia says:

    I agree, learn to delegate things - like having your trainees write their own fucking manuscripts. That's part of mentoring them as well.

  • KBHC says:

    babakubwa says: "I think the argument would be that they aren’t really binary balls that are dropped or not, or that each of the numbered items is actually a lot of little balls."

    Exactly. There is no way to be perfect at all of those things... or, frankly, really really good at all of those things. Select the ones you want to rock out on, and don't put much effort into the rest. Unfortunately, it's about survival.

  • GMP says:

    Which of the following gets dropped:

    1) Applying for grants
    2) Mentoring trainees
    3) Teaching
    4) Service (including advising undergrads and three committees where my absence would be VERY obvious)
    5) Writing manuscripts

    Why are you on so many darn committees to begin with? I presume they are departmental? That's the thing where you should be doing the absolute bare minimum you can get away with. I was on only one committee each year during my entire time on TT. And pick the least time consuming one (so undergrad admissions and grad admissions are probably not a good idea, leave it to tenured folks). And never EVER volunteer for committees until you get tenure. You can be a good department citizen later. If you absolutely must serve, have it be your professional society or program committee of a specialty conference, something that will give you visibility in your disciplinary community.

    The next thing to trim is teaching. Most new teachers cram too much material into their lectures and have expectations that are very high. (I was certainly guilty of both.) I have found that trimming the material to the very essence, spending more time on key concepts and going over this key material sloooowly did wonders for my evaluations and my sanity. The students will love it and it helps minimize the time for preparation. And they actually retain the concepts better. Win all around.

    The next thing is mentoring, although you cannot trim too much there. Try to restrict the number of weekly interactions with super-needy students. A group meeting plus 1-on-1 should suffice for most people during most weeks, unless there is something pressing or exciting data come in. Some people need stuff chewed for them into small bites; when stuck, have them try to get unstuck on their own for a bit longer...

    Writing grants and papers? Absolutely no trimming here until you get (a) sufficient funds to take a breather or (b) tenure, whichever comes later.

  • Once your lab reaches a certain size, if you recruit trainees properly, it requires a lot *less* time and effort than when you are first getting started. Now, I *never* need to work nights, weekends, or holidays.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Trust me, I'm not putting full effort in all around or I would be a burnt mess in the corner.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    As for the committees, what can I say? Every place is different and without getting into specifics, there's only so many bodies to do the work.

    On the teaching, I'm working on this, but again this takes more time, etc.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Looking forward to this, but not much help at the moment. As some of my trainees have matured to take some things on, I have also had new things come up there. So, even with more "mature" trainees, the net has been an increase.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Hahahahahaha. Indeed, having trainees write manuscripts doesn't take up my time at all!

    I do have them write their own, even though it would be less time and effort for me to write them instead. Again, I'm trying to do what is best for them and that is certainly part of the problem. That one, however, I am willing to tolerate.

  • GMP says:

    How large is your dept (people count), if you don't mind sharing?
    And do you routinely have to teach 2 per semester, as per your Wed post?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Let's just say that the # of faculty has halved in the last 15 years for various reasons, while enrollment has almost doubled. We're in the process of trying to right that ship, but it is not the best financial environment right now to do this quickly.

    I am only teaching two courses for a month. My normal load is either one grad class or one undergrad class per semester.

  • odyssey says:

    PlS, go home early and spend some extra time with the Wee One. And have a good IPA or two. Work will survive, I guarantee it. It's vital to occasionally say bugger it, step away from it all and get some perspective. Will your workload appear any less daunting afterwards? Probably not. But you'll be better able to deal with it.

  • FCS says:

    One thing I've found to be helpful when you can't drop a ball is to just do some things at less than 100%, and try to be ok with it. It's hard to do (I used to kill myself over typos), but I think ultimately it's the only way to survive without going nuts. There's just not enough hours in the day.

  • drugmonkey says:


  • Heavy says:

    Awesome post/topic PLS. Am heading down this path too. My advisors have all been the same way.

    However, the most productive person (in the top most productive people out there based on pubs and citations) I know works only a 40 hour work week, has a family, a life, etc. When in the office, this person simply focuses. It doesn't hurt being brilliant and a superb writer. I'll never be there so have to grind it out like most of the rest of us.

  • Namnezia says:

    GMP said: " I have found that trimming the material to the very essence, spending more time on key concepts and going over this key material sloooowly did wonders for my evaluations and my sanity."

    Best teaching advice, ever.

  • pyrope says:

    Can you hire a lackey? I have a staff person who works for
    me one day a week on research. She has a masters and is really
    phenomenal (so, I'm lucky), but I'm able to delegate some chunks of
    research projects to her (putting together figures, data
    processing) and it has helped me enormously. She's not a student,
    so no mentoring required. She also doesn't cost much because temps
    don't get benefits. With our current glut of over-educated and
    underpaid academics, maybe you could find someone to help? I notice
    that 'maintaining my blog' wasn't on your list of potential balls
    to drop. I am thankful.

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