How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?

If there were a “10 Things That Piss Academics Off the Most” list, ranking near the top would be the perception that academic life is easy and relaxing. Professors get annoyed at having to explain to their neighbors and family members that their work extends far beyond the lecture hall—and far beyond the seven-month-or-so academic year. They might be seen walking their dog in the middle of the day, but chances are they’re going back home to grade papers or prepare a seminar discussion or conduct research.

Despite broad consensus among professors that their job isn’t for slackers, they tend to disagree, primarily among themselves, about exactly how hard they work. While some scholars say they maintain a traditional 40-hour workweek, others contend they have a superhuman workload. Take Philip Guo, an assistant cognitive-science professor at University of California, San Diego, who on his blog estimated that in 2014 he spent 15 hours per week teaching, between 18 hours and 25 hours on research, four hours at meetings with students, between three hours and six hours doing service work, and between 5 hours and 10 hours at “random-ass meetings (RAM).” That amounts to as many as 60 hours per week—which, he noted, pales in comparison to the 70 hours he worked on average weekly as an undergraduate student at MIT.

America’s higher-education system is under increased scrutiny largely because of rising tuition costs and ballooning student debt; concerns about liberal indoctrination on college campuses, which are subsidized by taxpayer dollars, have also started to bubble up. People want to know where their tuition and tax money is going—are professors working hard for that money?

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9 thoughts on “How Hard Do Professors Actually Work?

  1. I think it can vary a lot. Husband worked A LOT when getting tenure, and works a lot on books, and there have been times when he had a lot of travel, and there are very high-demand times for a graduate director or when on a hiring committee. He also has found that he does better with a reduced course than a full sabbatical, as he needs the classroom interaction.

    However, then there are times like last semester. Not enough students signed for a new course he was offering, so the college (following their inscrutable policies) took it away from him, gave it to a TA, and left husband with one very easy to teach and grade course. ??? Coincidentally, we had just sent T (our 5-year-old) to 3-day pre-k, so husband and I both had a leisurely fall.

    There’s also the question of the nature of intellectual work and how much you can do of it at a stretch at top concentration (which is going to vary from individual to individual). I’ve just started doing some medical report editing that involves very high concentration (I do stuff like check how Canadians spell hypovolemic). The density varies. There are less dense sections where I can do 5+ pages of editing without needing to take a break, but there are more technical sections where I find myself looking up everything and needing to get up and do something for a couple minutes to prevent my mental fuses from blowing. Likewise, husband used to take a pile of papers to the archery range and grade, shoot, grade, shoot, etc.

    1. Right. It seems like hours worked isn’t necessarily the best metric, and only has some correlation with output. I can write and rewrite the same sentence for hours on end, or I can write 5 pages an hour (mostly something in between). I once wrote for 48 hours non-stop, producing a serviceable article draft. That level of work takes days of recovery afterwards and days of thinking leading up to it, with little output. Thinking brilliant thoughts is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. I feel like it’s equivalent to being an elite athlete. Producing at my top game involves thinking really really smart things for short periods of time (hours at a time), but to do so requires a lot of other sorts of work (including regular exercise of the mind on less taxing activities (e.g. reading), plus lots of mental rest). It’s easy to get out of shape by being lazy or to just get burnt out by trying to work at too high a level for too long a period of time.

      I’m in the midst of admissions right now, which is both a time slog and feels high stakes in terms of balancing efficiency with thoroughness. My inability to focus on someone’s writing sample may have major implications on their life choices and financial situation.

      1. It’s easy to get out of shape by being lazy or to just get burnt out by trying to work at too high a level for too long a period of time.

        Or to carve a rut in your brain from too much of one kind of work. For various reasons, I had something like 250 hours worked in January and basically all of it was statistical programming. Now that I’ve finished, I’m having trouble with the other parts of my job.

    2. Grading is the worst! It’s actually my least favorite part of my job, possibly. It takes me forever to grade, and I have to take frequent breaks because there is something so horrible about it.

  2. “I always find it hard to estimate the number of hours that I work. When I’m in the shower mulling over a paper and sketching a proof outline in the fog on the glass, does that count as ‘work hours?’”

    If someone even needed to ask this question, I would disregard their answer, regardless of the answer they came up with. The answer is “no.” Time in the shower is not a work hour, at least in the sense that regular people think of that term.

    As for the Oliver Twist person, I would concede that reading at night is a work hour–while at the same time denying that privilege to the proof-in-the-shower guy–but the entire nature of the exercise demonstrates how comparing the work loads of different fields is something that sometimes cannot be meaningfully done.

    1. “If someone even needed to ask this question, I would disregard their answer, regardless of the answer they came up with. The answer is “no.” Time in the shower is not a work hour, at least in the sense that regular people think of that term.”

      I don’t need to ask the question, so I guess you won’t disregard my answer, but … I have to do a lot of brainstorming and thinking to prepare for a class, and the shower is a great place to do it. I also sometimes come up with some of my best teaching ideas while driving to work and listening to music. It’s actually more productive because I don’t have the gddamn internet in front of me, so I am more creative.

  3. SI Hayakawa: some things you won’t like – ” By 1966, when an editor of San Francisco State’s student newspaper wrote a column making fun of efforts of SFSC’s professors to organize a union, Hayakawa, who was then teaching only part-time, wrote him a note saying, in part, “Basically, I agree with you … . there are a lot of lazy, oververbalized bores in any college faculty, including our own—people unfit for any other work but drinking coffee and chewing the fat with their juniors.” He, of course, refused to join the union, and some colleagues wondered if he was festering over earlier rebuffs.”

  4. Great article, lots of fun to read! My personal experience is that people in the sciences, such as my husband, work a WHOLE LOT! And all year-round — summer is the most productive time for his research because he doesn’t have to teach. His meager 60+K salary is definitely too low.

    Since I hadn’t been doing any research in the past 8 years (I want to start again), I haven’t worked too much. I try to work to make sure the university gets what it pays me. If I got paid more, I’d try to work more. 😉

    Now… the argument that what we do is not “real work” or hard work “because we enjoy it” is a pretty mean one…

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