What is Fair: Number of Hours vs Amount of Productivity

A week ago one of my co-workers got fired. It wasn’t entirely surprising. As a graduate student in his first year he was coming in only about 2-3 hours a day – and then only sporadically through out the day. After about 6 months and nothing getting accomplished, the guy was fired. No one in the lab questioned that it should be done, in fact, most of us were quite relieved that he did it because a) we didn’t like the guy and b) he didn’t work as hard as he should. He thought that he was smart enough to get by.

Research is a very nebulous thing, I’m almost say that it is very different from what most people do in their work lives.

See, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many hours you work as long as you produce results consistently.

However, if you’re the slacker who only works 4-6 hours per day, when things go WRONG you’re on thin ice. For instance, if you’re working only 4-6 hours per week and the work is going well and you’re publishing papers, NO ONE CARES that you’re only working a half day. However, if suddenly things STOP working, then your 4-6 hours look like the reason.

On the flip side, time doesn’t equal productivity. For instance, I have two labmates now that practically live in lab. They are here from 7 in the morning till 10 at night, seven days a week. However, just because they’re at work all the time doesn’t mean they get that much more done. They spend a lot of time in lab surfing the internet, gossiping with people, and generally being unproductive. Though they are PHYSICALLY in lab 15-16 hours a day, they actually only work probably 4-6 hours per day. However, when push comes to shove, the very nature of them just BEING here will help forgive them their un-productive sins.

One of the issues that occurs in graduate school is the requirement of hours. Some say that bosses should just lay down the law and say “You HAVE to be here 60 hours per week.” My boss in graduate school was like this. 60 hours per week was the minimum. AND I HATED IT. For my first three years of graduate school I has a horribly unproductive graduate student because I felt like I HAD to be there. So if I had things to do I would put them off and just say “Well, I have all of my ten hours today to do this… so I’ll just do it later to give me something to do…”

Then time would pass and then I’d say “Well… now I don’t really have time to do this today… so I’ll just do it tomorrow.”

Being forced to work 10 hour days just made me crazy. I got absolutely nothing done unless I absolutely had to.

My boss was unhappy with me, I was unhappy with my work. I hated life. So I decided to fuck my bosses advice and I’d work how I wanted. I tried it as an experiment. I would come in when I wanted, I would leave when I wanted, and I would give myself permission to leave as soon as I was done with everything I wanted to accomplish that day. So if it took me 4 hours to do it, great. If it took 14 hours, that was fine too. The generally idea was that I was bound to no time constraints or hours: just projects.

After two months my boss pulled me aside and said to me: “I don’t know what has changed, but keep it up, you’re doing great work.” And I told him exactly what changed, I decided that I was going to work at my own schedule, not his. He was flabberghasted at me. Yet, he was so pleased with my work that he didn’t care. Over the course of the next year I published 5 papers and 1 patent, doing things at MY pace and time schedule.

However, when I think about my labmate who just got fired, he was TRYING to work the same schedule as I did at the end of graduate school, and it didn’t work for him. He wasn’t forced to work any particular number of hours and subsequently did very little work and ultimately got fired.

So where should the line be drawn? Should workers just be allowed to work till they’re finished for the day? Or should there be a certain number of hours that are required?

I think the answer is a lot more complicated than the question, and really it is person specific and ability specific. And that is the hard part for an advisor/mentor/boss to figure out. You have to know how each person works and is motivated. Some people will work hard BECAUSE they’re at work, some people will work hard TO LEAVE work at the end of the day. And this can change over time. Given the option to leave work early at the beginning of my career I would have missed a lot of things that I got while forcing myself to be in lab – and probably would have gotten fired rather than having been chosen the “best” graduate student of the year I graduate by my department. All because I took the initiative to CHALLENGE the rules that had been set in front of me that I knew didn’t work for me. But it took me time to figure it out.

As a person who will someday be in the position of motivating graduate students and ultimately making decisions to hire or fire people I think a lot about these things. How can I treat each student differently such that they are motivated in a way that works best for them and still maintain a sense of fairness and equality in the lab?

The only option that I can think of is that to require pre-doctoral candidates (your candidacy exam happens in your 2nd or 3rd year of graduate school, depending on the institution) work 50 hours per week minimum. But then after they are candidates and should be working on their own accord THEY chose the schedule that works for them. Whether that is to let them continue to work 50 hours week or work efficient 30 hours weeks. Either way, of course productivity must still remain high no matter what they individually choose.

Does this seem fair? Or do you think I’ve completely missed the mark here? How do you work best: On a time constraint or with a flexible schedule?


One Response to What is Fair: Number of Hours vs Amount of Productivity

  1. My advisor does not set any requirement on number of hours worked. Technically, as Research Assistants, we are only supposed to work 20 hours a week – although most people work more. I think that she is lucky because all her students are able to manage their time and get their work done. I definitely think that having a flexible schedule is a perk of grad school and if I was forced to work certain hours, I’d probably say screw it – and go out to get a real job where I made the big bucks.

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