Can I work only 40 hours as an academic?

Prof. Marco Mello has published (in Portuguese) some advice for people considering entering graduate school including how “graduate school is not a 9-to-5 job”, and that good doctoral students usually work way more than 40 hours a week.

Similar advice was given by Prof. Matt Might:

Ph.D. school is neither school nor work.

Ph.D. school is a monastic experience. And, a jealous hobby.

Solving problems and writing up papers well enough to pass peer review demands contemplative labor on days, nights and weekends.

Reading through all of the related work takes biblical levels of devotion.

Ph.D. school even comes with built-in vows of poverty and obedience.

The end brings an ecclesiastical robe and a clerical hood.

Students that treat Ph.D. school like a 9-5 endeavor are the ones that take 7+ years to finish, or end up ABD.]

Although I still haven’t completed my doctoral studies, and I greatly value advice from people who are more experienced than I am, I tend to disagree with this sort of argument. My views are more aligned with another Professor, Cal Newport; he argues that you should mantain a regular 9-5 schedule, and you can accomplish this by:

  • Dramatically cut back on the number of projects you are working on.
  • Ruthlessly cull inefficient habits from your daily schedule.
  • Risk mildly annoying or upsetting some people in exchange for large gains in time freedom.
  • Stop procrastinating.

From observing all kind of people working around me, I’ve come to the conclusion that working hours mean very little. If someone maintains two-hour lunch breaks, plus one-hour coffee breaks, plus 2-3 meetings per day, plus endless sessions to process email, he might as well have worked 12 hours in a day without producing any value. On the other hand, if I work say 7 hours per day (as is usual for me, and without including the lunch break), but am able to keep two sessions of 2.5 hours each of intense concentration in an important task (like programming, reading and writing papers, studying some topic), haven’t I worked enough?

Additionally, for a graduate student, work is a subtle definition. If I leave the lab somewhat early to go for a run, and in my practice I listen to some podcast that gives me an idea to try at work on the next day, am I working or not?

I may only “work”, sitting down at my desk, for 7-8 hours each day, but I am constantly thinking about work, about how can I better write some section of some paper, about what does that theory mean, about some result I got from a simulation.

And lastly, there are non-work things that help me to work. I spend almost one hour each day praying and reading the Bible; I could work during that time, but doing this instead makes more calm and more focused than if I simply “worked”. Same for exercising on the evenings, or relaxing while watching a movie on the weekends.

Am I wrong?


Por Fábio Fortkamp

Pai do João Pedro, Marido da Maria Elisa, Professor do Departamento de Engenharia Mecânica da Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina, católico devoto, nerd

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