Why Academics Work Much Longer Hours Than They Think

Work is normally felt as a burden. For starters, it is coercive. In exchange for a wage, you are signing away your autonomy and giving the employer some (limited) control over your behaviors. From a certain point of view, you are sacrificing your freedom for money, and that can be a hard pill for many to swallow. Because work is so burdensome, we usually know when we are working and when we are not working.

In times past, work was really quite easy to distinguish from non-work. If you labored away in a factory, you knew when you were working. The minute you left the shop floor, your life transitioned into sweet leisure. These days, the line between work and non-work is much more blurred, and nowhere is this more evident than in academia.

Most academics know unambiguously that they are engaged in work when they are teaching. Even those of us who enjoy teaching (and I count myself in that group) still sense that this is an unavoidable core responsibility of the job. This is especially true when it comes to grading, or marking as it’s called in some parts of the world. I have yet to meet an academic who does not feel the burden of grading student assessments. And yet it is work that must be done for a university to function.

The same is true of “service,” “administration,” “leadership,” or whatever else you want to call that part of our job. We know that, when we are sitting on a committee or a working group, we are doing this not out of our own volition, but because we have to as part of the job. Call it a sense of organizational citizenship.

Research, however, is a whole other animal. This is where the line between work and non-work gets so thin that it almost disappears. When academics tell me that, if they were to win the lottery tomorrow, they would continue to conduct research, I believe them. I would, too. Sure, I might abandon the parochial focus on peer reviewed articles to free myself from the tyranny of Reviewer 2, but I certainly would be writing books to the end of my days. Writing is a pleasure, not a burden, for most of us. Harsh judgments of our writing are certainly not pleasurable, to be fair. But the act of analysing data and teasing out what they mean is, at least for me, simply beautiful.

This is why it is not possible or even feasible to ask academics to ever use a timecard to survey working hours. Even if we do all of our writing in the office (and very few can say that these days), the time we spend on our research by far exceeds the time of which we are aware. Thinking about research is still work, in my view, and we think about our research in the office, at home, over dinner, in bed, at the beach, while skiing, and even in the shower.

“Thinking about research is still work, in my view, and we think about our research in the office, at home, over dinner, in bed, at the beach, while skiing, and even in the shower.”

Of course, one implication of the fact that we work much longer hours than our employer recognizes is that we all do a lot of unpaid work, especially in the case of sessionals or adjuncts. Maybe university Presidents and Vice Chancellors should bear this fact in mind the next time they offer a pay raise that falls below inflation.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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