Somewhat naively, I had assumed that the talk would focus on the pressure to work long hours that came from external sources – colleagues, supervisors, even students. After all, we do work in a “publish or perish” culture, and we also face myriad service obligations on a daily basis. So it would make sense that we all dream about tiptoeing unseen out of our offices to have a glass of wine, pursue a hobby, or what have you. Right?
Not exactly. In addition to external pressures, much of the pressure to work is actually internal. We push ourselves to spend the extra hour at the office, to pop in on a weekend, or to take on that extra writing project. Participants in the Twitter chat expressed many reasons for this internalized pressure, including guilt, impostor syndrome, tying one’s self-worth to their accomplishments, and fear that if they don’t work hard they wouldn’t get a job or funding.
These reasons are common, and there are many other factors that drive us to work endless hours. For one, we love our work, so it doesn’t always feel like “work.” It’s a gift and a curse to derive so much joy from your work that you don’t mind devoting time to it. Burn out, however, can happen even with an activity you love. We can all recognize burnout – like that end of semester “flu” that plagues so many academics, for instance. When we experience it, we often just pick ourselves back up and continue on, without evaluating the reasons we feel burnt out.
There is no bell that signals the end of your day – the boundaries are loose. Much of the work academics do is solitary, and there is often no boss to answer to – at least not in any formal sense. As a result, work creeps in everywhere. It’s easy to stay at the office late or arrive early. Also, we’re socialized to work hard. Graduate school is incredibly difficult, and there are few shortcuts. There is an expectation – both explicit and implicit – that graduate students should be working all day, every day, and focus only on their studies. Of course, people who opt in to graduate school tend to be hard workers, and as they move through graduate school into careers, they further internalize the expectations to work around-the-clock. Because we tend to remain in careers populated by others with a PhD, we are surrounded by colleagues who are working just as hard as we are, or in our own assessment, even harder. We’re left with no choice but to keep up.
What Can You Do?
If you find that the person keeping you at your desk is actually you, what can you do about it? I’ve already talked about the importance of vacations, so today I am proposing something much more modest. Give yourself a break, every day. It can be as simple as a 15-minute walk or drinking a cup of coffee away from your computer. Put that break in your planner or on your to-do list. Treat it like as much of a priority as you would treat any other meeting. When you feel tempted to skip that break, tell yourself no.
There should be no shame in working hard. The intellectual and creative labor that academics and others with PhDs perform is challenging, to say the least. Nonetheless, we should not feel guilty when we aren’t working, or be resistant to any sort of break or fulfillment outside of our work. You deserve a break! Not just because breaks will make you more productive, and not because you “earned” it, but because you are more than just your work.