Working hours for university researchers and the 9-5 culture

A recent tweet by @professor_dave (Professor David Smith at York’s Chemistry department) referred to an article in Nature News about the working hours of researchers. It led me to think about what we expect, and what we actually get from our research students and postdocs, how this varies between institutions and subjects, and how it has changed over the years.

I did my PhD at UCL in the late 70s-early 80s (1978-81 to be precise). My supervisor didn’t insist on particular hours as long as we made progress, and since he routinely went home at 4:00 pm (!), he wasn’t around to check up on us. But our normal working pattern was to come in about 9:30 am (avoiding the worst of the London rush hour), and work until about 8:00 pm (having had dinner in the college refectory around 6:00 pm). These were relatively short hours in comparison with some experimental researchers who seemed to work around the clock. Moving on, my first postdoc appointment, also at UCL, followed a similar pattern in terms of working hours. When I moved to Birkbeck College, the hours culture changed a bit, since undergraduate teaching was from 6-9 pm every night, so people were normally around until then, having come in at 9:00 am and done their research during the day. I probably worked my longest hours while I was there. When I moved to Keele in 1986, my supervisor worked in the evenings, so the group did as well. This usually involved working until about 6:00 pm, having dinner, and then returning about 8:00 pm to work until 10:00 pm, when the whole group would adjourn to the pub, where we would discuss work topics. This worked very well for me at the time, but I didn’t have responsibilities at home then.

Since I have had my own research students and postdocs, I haven’t attempted to specify working hours beyond the basic working week, mainly because I believe that working longer hours comes either from inner motivation, or from a group or institutional culture. It is relatively rare to see PhD students working in the evenings in my building (there are of course safety issues for experimentalists, but at UCL there would always be senior researchers working round the clock, so it wasn’t an issue there). It’s more the case now that PhD students now seem to regard doing a PhD as a job, rather than a vocation; something which I think has changed since I did my PhD. With this mentality in place, it is perhaps hardly surprising to see people going home at 5:00 pm!

The Nature article mentions serious examples of long working hours, with researchers working through the night, and supervisors phoning their students at 6:00 am to arrange group meetings. This is perhaps going a bit far, but a compromise, with a bit more evening working might improve overall research culture, which seems to have diminished over a number of years. If people didn’t feel the necessity to go home at 5:00 pm, it might be easier to schedule research seminars, for example, after teaching hours. This is what happened at UCL, and because the seminars didn’t clash with teaching, attendances were always good. But the subject of scheduling research seminars could form a discussion in its own right, and I won’t start on that now, except to say that my ideal model for a research seminar would be to have it from 5-6 pm, continuing with discussions in the bar afterwards!

In conclusion, I’m not advocating the long hours mentioned in the article, but I do think that research isn’t a 9-5 activity, which it seems to have become in some places, and I think it is the poorer for that.

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2 thoughts on “Working hours for university researchers and the 9-5 culture”

  1. Nice to read a balanced post about this. I enjoy working in the evenings and I like the sound of your experience at Keele. Unfortunately we are a small lab and almost all (except me!) have wives/girlfriends to go home to. I feel guilty if someone has to wait around for me to finish late just so that I’m not alone!

  2. That’s a fair point. The time I was referring to at Keele was when I was a postdoc and without a family. Having family does make a difference of course, but mine are certainly understanding enough to accept some evening/weekend work as a normal part of the job.

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