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Can scientific research be a 9-5 job?

A question on Quora:

What sort of hours does a research professor in a STEM discipline at a good university work? Is it a 9-5 job? Do you have weekends free? Are they sufficiently passionate about their work that they don't mind working irregular hours?

A very pertinent question for someone looking for an academic career in science!

Daniel Madison, University Biology Prof. has replied:

It is absolutely not a 9–5 job. The good things about the hours is that they are very flexible, so it’s hard to say what a typical schedule is. I work about 60 ′core’ hours a week, hours I schedule to work... Before I got tenure, it was probably more like 70 hours a week... Now what about this ‘add on’ time? This is the time you spend traveling to a meeting - writing a paper on the plane. Or the time you were answering emails while you waiting at the doctor’s office. I myself always plan not to work weekends. That is family time for me. But even then I find that something comes up and I’ve spent an hour or two here or there working over the weekend... Bottom line, being a STEM professor is not the job if you want a 9–5 job. On the other hand, it is usually a fun job and doesn’t seem that much like work.

I am inclined to agree with Dr. Madison. However, what works for me needn't work for another person, because every person's health status, family situation and other circumstances are different (assuming the passion for research is equally strong in all researchers).

In general, it is true that for most scientific researchers, 9-5 does not work that well. Especially for a person who has teaching and administrative responsibilities and has research work going on simultaneously, the work simply cannot align to a 9-5 schedule.

Scientific research is somewhat similar to creative art work. If we ask an artist to work only from 9-5, it might not be conducive to their creativity. Another thought: the creative and artistic people who do work from offices in a 9-5 situation, do they "finish" their thoughts, inspirations and contemplations at 5 PM sharp?

Besides experimental or computational activities, research work also entails cycles of thinking, and data analysis. I think it is impossible to schedule "thinking and staring at data" into a time slot. Also, when you are doing data analysis, you really do not want to be distracted by anyone or anything.

When I was a PhD student at IIT Kanpur, we did not consider research to be a work that is meant to be done for a certain number of hours. It was the very fabric of our existence, into which we also managed to weave in our routine activities, hobbies and camaraderie. The work was not done for the meagre stipend or for the fear of the supervisor. It was not done for name or fame. It was not always for the sake of any "higher purpose" either that we strove, losing our sleep and working such long hours. The bigger picture and the purpose behind it is important. But, on a day to day basis, for me, it was all for the sake of the work itself. The work was a source of curiosity and joy. Much like an unputdownable mystery novel. If the novel is a part of an academic course, reading it might be for the purpose of passing the course and even to elevate your mind to some loftier levels. But, if you fall in love with that book, reading itself is the joy, it is the goal right now in this present moment.

During my postdoctoral tenures as well, I was blessed to be part of teams filled with passionate, curious researchers, who did not see boundaries between work (the offices, the labs, the cleanrooms, and the campus) and life (family, friends, fun, laughter, joy, sharing, planning, dreaming, etc.).

I always remember the words of my senior and mentor, Dr. Nazrul Islam, from whom I learned a lot. Paraphrasing and translating what he said, these wise words were bestowed upon us: "If you don't understand why the other guy is working so hard, losing sleep, then the bug has not bitten you yet. When the bug gets into your head, and bites you, then you will work and you will get results."

When you are bitten by this bug, you will think of data when you try to sleep. You will think of the experiment or your data when you eat. You will want to read more and more papers, because this bug does not let you be at peace. The highs you get from that work - that feeling is difficult to explain to someone who is "unbitten". When you have your dinner, and come back to the lab, say 'hi' to all other owls who pass you in the corridors, and enter your lab (which may not have other labmates), the feeling of "coming home" is difficult to explain. We worked absorbed, each person focused on their own stuff, but the unified energy of all these passionate researchers in the building creates an inaudible hum that is difficult to define.

I am fortunate that age, cynicism or disappointments have not cured me of my bug. It remains healthy and active in my head. I find it joyful to do my work, and it is one of the greatest blessings possible. I get paid to do something I love to do, and that is not something everyone can have in life. I am grateful for this blessing.

People say, a 9-5 job makes it easier to have a good home and work balance. However, even with 9-5 job, one can find it difficult to devote time and effort to relationships. It is often how you prioritize things, what are your time traps, and the consistent effort you put into your relationships, that matter.

For me personally, I find a 9-5 situation detrimental for my ideas, thoughts, creativity and family time. The truth is that, with a 9-5 schedule, I still work for 10-12 hours, but instead of having a conducive situation to do that work, I am inconvenienced by have to punch in and punch out at a certain time like a robot. All the students lose access to the space, ambience and resources of the office and the lab after hours. If you are up till 3 am working on something that is critical or you are in the flow, you still cannot sleep in the next morning and go to work a bit late. Even if you are in the middle of an important discussion or analysis, you still have to pack up and leave at 5. Or at least go to the entrance to punch out, only to come back in and continue the work!

So, 9-5 is definitely not for me. I would rather have more flexibility. Even if I work for 12 hours in a flexible schedule, it leads to a better balance between family and work for me. It is unfortunate that policy makers at different levels try to equate academic work with office shift work. The laboratories, libraries and some other resources need to be available to students and faculty 24X7 to create that atmosphere where research is not a work to be finished so that you can go out an "play", but a part of your life and its purpose. When students are not forced to a life of 2 punch 1 lunch culture, then they make the lab a playzone too, and creativity flows.

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