Real grad students pull all-nighters.
September 30, 2016 3:08 PM   Subscribe

As a full-time graduate student in a research program, I'm not overworked, and I'm managing reasonable hours in the lab. In contrast, I see other graduate students putting in 12 hour workdays and juggling multiple deadlines. I'm worried that this might be a sign that I'm underperforming and don't know it.

I've been in a MSc program in Computer Science for over a year now, and so far, I'm enjoying it. I have a supportive supervisor, an engaging research topic, a great learning environment, and ample funding and resources. Moreover, I've been able to manage a good work-life balance. I'm generally in the lab from 9-5 every weekday, and I'm enjoying lots of extracurricular activities and a good social life outside of my research.

Overall, I'm really enjoying my program, and planning to transfer to a PhD so I can further pursue some of the interesting leads that my research has yielded, something that my supervisor has been encouraging about. However, the nagging doubt in the back of my mind is that I might not be qualified for one because I seem to be putting in less work than my peers. The other graduate students are always incredibly busy - I see some people in the lab from 9 AM to late at night, constantly working on experiments, and spending countless hours in the library typing away at papers, reviews, theses. Despite not having this lifestyle, my progress seems to be good. My supervisor has remarked that I'm making very good progress in my program, I have good marks in all of my courses, and I've even already managed to publish one peer-reviewed paper in the time I've been in my program.

I swear that I'm not humblebragging - this is something that's seriously stressing me out a bit. I'm worried that my progress to date despite the lack of hours I'm putting in might be a sign of me lacking something - I'm worried that my literature reviews might not be as comprehensive as other students, or I might be sloppier with my data, or less exhaustive with my experiments. I'm worried whatever it is that I'm doing wrong might be okay in a short-term MSc program, but will catch up me and lead to failure in a long-term PhD. I understand that this might be a tough question to answer if you don't know me, but why is my experience in graduate school so different from the typical narrative of what workload is like in graduate school, and from the reported experiences of other graduate students?
posted by Conspire to Education (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I just completed my masters degree in a completely different field, and I experienced the same thing. I worked while I was going to school and still found time to occasionally go on weekend vacations, run, cook for myself etc. Others acted like this was impossible. I think some people are just way more efficient with how/when they work. For example, I knew a lot of people who wouldn't work in the morning. For me, completed most of my work independently in the morning (rather than in study groups) and participating in activities that I enjoy helped me move through my work with more energy. Don't stress about it, everyone is different!
posted by Packy_1962 at 3:17 PM on September 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

Also, I think people really like to compete about how much time the put into school work as if it's some sort of badge of honor.
posted by Packy_1962 at 3:17 PM on September 30, 2016 [49 favorites]

Do not measure your progress by the time you put in.

There's a culture in business, that has also found its way into academia, to want to be the first to arrive and the last to leave, to put in the most hours and to juggle the most work. This is not a sign that someone is succeeding; it's a sign that someone wants to be seen to be the hardest worker, in the belief that this will impress their superiors.

There's a mountain of evidence that shows that people's performance at tasks involving concentration drops off quite rapidly after relatively few hours. Anecdotally, I find that I'm more productive on a four-day week, or if I take a lot of breaks. If you have a good work-life balance, and if that helps you to enjoy your work, you'll be way more productive in the hours you do work, and you'll achieve at least as much as those who choose "the grind" as a way of studying.
posted by pipeski at 3:22 PM on September 30, 2016 [25 favorites]

My supervisor has remarked that I'm making very good progress in my program, I have good marks in all of my courses, and I've even already managed to publish one peer-reviewed paper in the time I've been in my program.
You're fine. That's all that matters. You may be more efficient than your peers, or they may be working on projects that require more time, or any number of things may be going on. But if your supervisor thinks you're making good progress and all other indications suggest that you're making good progress, it's irrelevant what anyone else is doing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:51 PM on September 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

I can only speak for the business world, but if long hours implied good work, some of the most inefficient, lack of knowledge people I know would be lauded as geniuses. While it may be true that 10,000 hours will lead to proficiency, it is not true that any 10,000 hours will. People have different levels of efficiency and productivity. To me, as a manager, I look to the end result more than the hours it took to get there.

If you are doing good work as noted by your advisers, then your work is good. Don't feel some sort of puritan work ethic guilty about it. If it makes you feel better, I am quite sure there are many others who envy you for your efficiency.
posted by AugustWest at 3:53 PM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Honestly, having been a grad student and knowing tons of other grad students, we are (as a whole) not the best at time management. Also work will expand to fill the time allotted to it. So I think they're just spending more time because, A. They have the time to spend, and B. they're not good at managing their work schedule.
posted by MsMolly at 4:11 PM on September 30, 2016 [20 favorites]

Back in college, a classmate of mine used to always ask me how long my exam papers were. Typically he'd have written about ten pages to my two. Then when he'd check back with me after we got our grades to see what I got, I'd have gotten an A while he got a B. He clearly didn't think this computed at all, but past a certain level of output it really is all about quality, not quantity.
posted by orange swan at 4:12 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

Been there, have lots of feelings about this.

I got my PhD (hard sciences). It took me 6 years, which is exactly average for my program. I did my coursework during the first 2 years, earning a 3.7/4 GPA, which isn't bad. I enjoyed my courses, mostly. Found them interesting and manageable. Like you, I generally worked about 40 hours a week, a bit more when I was still taking classes since I had homework. My research involved animals (fish), which meant that I usually had to care for them on weekends, so it wasn't really a 9-5 job, but I kept reasonable hours. Every once in a while I had to put in a good chunk of extra work (for a grant deadline or conference), but it was definitely the exception - and it was only when I was working with other people, not when I was working alone. I never pulled any all nighters (except for occasional circadian experiments, but that was by design). Generally speaking, I was not consumed by work. I have plenty of other interests. I got married in my 2nd year. I had a child in my 4th year. I wrote 2 first-author papers and 1 non-first-author paper (plus my dissertation, which was mostly the same material).

I actually felt the same during college, too. I went to MIT, and I was in the first group of Biological Engineering majors (the first year the major was offered). The point is, I didn't pick the "easy option", and MIT is famous for breaking its students. Sure, I worked really hard, but even in college, I didn't pull a single all-nighter. Not once. I never failed a test and never dropped a class. I graduated on time with a 4.7/5 GPA. During college I made great friends, kept up various hobbies, volunteered, etc.

Now that I'm a postdoc, I'm seeing the same things. I work reasonable hours (my kid is 2, so there's no way I can stay in lab late) and I see others around me staying later, working more at home, and so on. Same story. Like you, I have plenty of experience worrying that I'm some kind of major slacker compared to my peers. I know exactly how you feel. However, I am now a postdoctoral fellow, in my third iteration of this "problem", and although I still have my worries, I'm starting to see a pattern.

The real shocker is that in my current job, and also in graduate school, and in college, somehow, people perceive me as very productive and hard-working. At least 2 other postdocs recently asked me how I was so productive.* I find this baffling, and I often feel like telling people "no, you don't understand, I really don't work very hard" whenever they tell me that I worked hard on something or did a good job. I often have a feeling that I'm getting away with something, or that I'm fooling people.

*Hard numbers? I'm definitely NOT crazy productive, but I don't think I'm underperforming too much either. In the past year as a postdoc, I've written a grant (very small, but likely funded), 3 manuscripts (submitted 2 so far), worked on one old project from my PhD years, gotten an IRB protocol approved, bought, set up and coded some tricky new equipment and gotten it set to start collecting data, analyzed 4 large data sets, and quite a few smaller projects. I am, compared to my peers, relatively short on publications: 1 published, 2 under review, 2 more to be submitted in the next month. After all those are published I might be closer to average.

What can explain this? Well, here's what I think.

1) I may not work long hours, but I'm very reliable. I'm on time, and if I can't come in (these days that's almost always because my kid is sick), I email everybody about it promptly, offer to reschedule any meetings, and give a timeline (without being asked) for completing whatever I was planning to work on that day (as long as that's relevant). If I go on vacation, I notify people months ahead of time. Basically, I give the impression of having my shit together, and people magically assume this means I work long, hard hours.

2) I don't procrastinate much. When I tell people I'll send them a draft of a manuscript, I send it, right on time. I just buckle down and get it done. Little administrative tasks that often get forgotten? I don't often forget them. I leave meetings with a clear plan for what I'll do and when. People almost never have to ask me to do anything twice. Over the years, I've come to realize this is unusual, it makes me efficient, and again, it gives the impression that I work extra hard.

3) I'm an introvert who usually just wants to go home at the end of the day. I hate staying late, I handle sleep deprivation poorly, and I act accordingly: I get things done so I don't have to stay late. I mean, I have a kid now, but I also got things done early as a 20yo college student. I'm REALLY motivated to avoid needing to be at a library at 10 PM or awake writing an essay at 3 AM. I have a horrible reaction to caffeine and I've never been able to drink coffee (makes me really sick), and without caffeine I'm forced to manage my time well. Most people handle this stuff better than I do.

4) I'm not ultra motivated and I have zero competitive feelings of any kind. Sure, in the abstract I like the idea of being super successful, but I don't have the motivation to push myself that hard. I have the motivation to be organized, efficient and reasonably productive, but I need to be spending time with my family, I need to be playing music, I need to be reading novels, I need to be dreaming my dreams and writing and doing all the other things that I do. I have always been stubborn and I don't give up easily, and obviously I've needed some degree of ambition to get where I am, but I've never been single-minded.

Can you tell I've thought rather obsessively about this? Yeah. Well, there's my self-analysis as to why I seem to be getting by despite not putting in 80-hour weeks. I still struggle with self-doubt about this on a daily basis, but it's getting better with time. I think you're doing fine. I doubt other people are doing more careful work. If the last 12 years have taught me anything, it's that past 25 hours/week or so, there's only a very slight correlation between how much you work and how much you get done. I know that sounds blasphemous, but I think it's true.
posted by Cygnet at 4:13 PM on September 30, 2016 [59 favorites]

(Also the ones who make it through a PhD program to be employed as faculty tend to find a way to manage their schedule that works for them. But you'll still see a LOT of maladaptive work behavior all the way through grad school from the people who just manage to eke out a dissertation by the skin of their teeth.)
posted by MsMolly at 4:14 PM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have never pulled an all-nighter. I was always a good student. My Certificate in GIS is the equivalent of graduate level work. It is normally a year long program. I completed it in a two month boot-camp style summer school.

I was very ill and my medical situation qualified me for handicapped housing, which meant my dorm room was in the same building as my classes. One day, I turned my assignment in before lunch. I got back from lunch and I did not feel well. It began to look to me like no more teaching was going to happen. The rest of the time was apparently set aside for completing the assignment I turned in before leaving for lunch.

So I asked if we were doing anything else that afternoon or could I leave for the rest of that class since I did not feel well. The professor told me I had to turn my assignment in. I reminded him that I had turned it in before lunch. He had a really hard time admitting that there was nothing more we were doing that day and that I had done everything. Once I ascertained that I had completed everything I needed to do for that class that day, I left and took care of myself.

You need to find objective measures. Do not go to anyone and talk about how you are working fewer hours than other students in your program. Find either a person you trust, such as a favorite professor or your advisor, or a data source you trust and ascertain what the objective benchmarks are that are unrelated to hours worked.

Find out what grades you need, what scores you need, what is typical in terms of papers published, lab experiments completed, etc. Get all of the objective metrics and compare your actual performance to those things.
posted by Michele in California at 4:17 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

You may also find this changes as you progress through the course - I felt like I had nothing to do for the first 18months of my (UK) PhD, because there was a lot of waiting around for ethics, writing protocols and doing lit searches, none of which I found that time consuming. Even my data collection only needed a blitz once a month to keep of top of things. Got great results, presented loads nationally and internationally, all going well.

Writing up was a complete nightmare. Blank page syndrome, procrastination, hours spent staring at a screen.... it just isn't something I'm good at (my actual prose is fine, I just can't sit writing for hours with no end in sight, 5000 words is about the limit of my focus. I write great papers, can't do chapters).

I have colleagues who pulled all nighters collecting data for the first two and a half years and who looked on me with envy, but those same people then breezed through their write-up in a month or two (our theses are 100,000 words, I cannot even imagine producing that much writing in two months, but I know two people who apparently did). Maybe you and your colleagues just have different strengths?
posted by tinkletown at 4:45 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm going to go with a combination of program/expectations (some programs really seem to require long hours; others don't), intrinsic efficiency/time management, and perhaps your lab is also set up well so that tasks are being delegated effectively with enough lead time on projects that no one has to do anything last-minute. Even if you're intrinsically an efficient person, if the people you're collaborating with are not, that can cause a lot of delay, projects that don't really move forward, etc.

When I was a medical resident one of my friends almost always left before 6, work finished and a sheaf of primary literature in hand for casual perusal in the evening. He's just a person who wastes very little time, doesn't need to repeat things, and has worked out very efficient work habits for himself. (He went on to a prestigious fellowship and is now a faculty member at one of the top five academic hospitals in the country).
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:02 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

You may just be better at time management than a lot of PhD students...

In hindsight, I could have avoided a whole lot of all nighters if I managed my time better.

So, and I mean this with absolutely no sarcasm, good for you!
posted by NormieP at 5:09 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

You may just be better with setting boundaries than your peers are. I know that my problems with setting boundaries have usually led to poor time management and being an unreliable flake who was working long hours yet getting not so much done. If you say 'yes' to too many people and things you can't possibly be that reliable and will inevitably end up neglecting certain things. Everyone else would be ahead of me because they were just doing the bare minimum- but doing it well. While I was doing all sorts of favors for people and saying yes to any social invitations, etc, etc.

I still struggle with this but am trying to fix it. Seems like you're doing well and don't have to work on this.
posted by manderin at 5:10 PM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wow, except for a few minor details your post could well have been written by me! My impression is that a lot of it boils down to good/lucky choice of supervisor and/or project. It seems like most people in my lab have a similar sort of experience (though I have observed there tends to be a bit of a sprint near the end where they're writing up/preparing to defend), while my physicist friends all seem to be overworked and underpaid, and my cousin in biology spends very long hours in the lab babysitting her specimens.

The fact that you have an active social/extra-curricular life might have something to do with it too, somewhat counter-intuitively - for me, at least, I know that when I have plans in the evening or on the weekend I feel much more motivated to get shit done so I can enjoy myself, whereas if I've got nothing to do I figure I might as well hang out in the lab slacking off well into the evening.
posted by btfreek at 5:41 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

You do whatever works for you. If you're getting your stuff done in a sane amount of hours, stick with it! I got through my PhD as a person who likes going home at a reasonable hour, getting a normal amount of sleep, and not working all weekend every weekend. I also have a hard time quieting the nagging anxious voice in the back of my head telling me I should be working 24-7, but it's not actually necessary.
posted by pemberkins at 5:41 PM on September 30, 2016

Personally I found the expectations and pressure to be much lower in my masters program than in the doctoral program. So things may change if you stay in school as you are planning.

A guy I knew in graduate school finished his PhD in record time, working pretty much just 9-5 because he went home to his family in the evenings. But in those hours he actually worked, like it was his job, while the rest of us acted more like dilettantes, if I am being honest. Sustained and focused effort will get you a lot further than late nights.

That said, I also knew someone who wrote his dissertation in two weeks, start to finish, working around the clock with only naps, and is now a bonafide public intellectual. So there is more than one path to the finish line.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:53 PM on September 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

I have a PhD. When I was in grad school, I noticed that there were some students who treated grad school like a job -- they put in their time, took weekends off, and lived their lives -- and some that treated grad school like a lifestyle -- they slacked off, hung out, had smart-sounding conversations, and put in lots of hours. I was sadly in the latter camp, but I always envied people in the former camp.

If your advisor says you're good, you're good. Don't worry.
posted by OrangeDisk at 5:56 PM on September 30, 2016 [11 favorites]

The only grad students I am aware of that pull all nighters waste a ton of time. Some do hobbies during normal working hours. Some daydream and screw around and take two hours to do something that should take five minutes. Some are perfectionists to the extreme (which is a huge waste of time). Working a productive 40 is better than most 20 somethings without real work experience can do.
posted by Kalmya at 7:03 PM on September 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

The people who are in the lab 15 hours a day spend 10 of those hours dicking around, I guarantee it. I'm a productive scientist and I work 40 hours most weeks, sometimes 45 and that's all. If you stay off the internet and away from chatty cathys you can get a surprising amount done.

In college I used to go read magazines in the library and pretend I was studying. I only went to study groups if I was interested in dating someone there. It's even easier to slack off with the internet.
posted by fshgrl at 7:37 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I pull all nighters once or twice a semester, am a tenure track faculty member, and damn I do not waste time (seriously, I track my hours pretty obsessively). I treat it like a job (because it is a job). I think another thing you're not seeing yet that might be causing these questions is what happens when you have multiple projects at different phases of their lifecycle (that is, a project you've just started, data you're analyzing for a second thing, an article draft going for a third project, revision requests back from a journal for another project, a grant proposal you're almost done with for the next big thing). Plus service and teaching one or more classes. Ideally as a PhD candidate finished with coursework you'd be working on your dissertation plus another project or two, and as an independent researcher on faculty you'd have anywhere from three to five projects at various phases. You're in a different mode than others, which brings me to my second point: never compare yourself to others in graduate school. It's a fool's errand. You have no idea what their home lives are like, what their attention span is, what their motivations are, whether they are working another job to make ends meet, etc. It's not worthwhile to compare yourself to others when your information about those other people lacks the proper context. Just focus on yourself. If you're bored or feel like you'd like to be doing more, do more. No one in academia is going to stop you from working more, I promise.
posted by sockermom at 8:26 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

If your adviser is happy and you're making good progress, then you're doing things right. I've been in academia for many years, and have seen people work all kinds of hours. For the most part, once you exceed about 40-50 hours per week, there's very little correlation between hours spent in the lab/office and productivity. My theory is that most humans are wired such that we can only be 100% productive for a limited number of hours per day, per week. Pushing beyond that limit, for most of us, leads to burnout.

I've known lots of people who claim to work >12-hour days, but if you watch closely, most of them spend huge amounts of time screwing around on the internet, making personal phone calls, taking long lunch and dinner breaks, etc -- in other words, not really working.

That said, there will likely be times during your PhD when you'll have to push yourself, but it doesn't have to be the mindless soul-crushing grind that many people make it out to be.

Focus hard when you're at work, then go enjoy your life.

Here's a good perspective from a successful scientist: Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science.
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:32 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Check out the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. He's a recently tenured computer science professor with two young kids who works 9-5 and doesn't take work home with him. It's all about management of your time energy, and attention - and it sounds like you're doing a good job of it already.
posted by Joe Chip at 9:49 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

What worked for me in grad school was working long hours when the work was fun and flowing, but not spending time in the lab or in front of the computer when it was not. Give yourself a break. Go for a bike ride. See some friends. Your creative brain will thank you. Now that I am all grown up, I find I have about 6-8 hours of solid work in me each day, and then I go home.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 10:03 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm faculty. Your post has been my experience throughout my career. With some exceptions due to particular circumstances/stress/awkward deadlines, I have fairly consistently worked a totally normal 30-40 hour week all the way through grad school, through post docs, VAPs and now the permanent position, and I don't work weekends either. All around me there have been people bemoaning their 70 hour weeks, working late at night, sending work emails over the weekend.
I routinely have feelings of guilt about my apparent laziness or lack of dedication, and the only way around that is
1. Reconnecting with some (marxist if necessary!) theories about labour and capitalism that make me remember this is a job, for which I am paid, and that my extra labour often makes a profit for people who are not me and I need to consider if I'm willing to do that
2. comparing myself to others only in terms of output, not input. I am considered hardworking and productive; I give the time to my students that they need and require; I am reliable and meet my deadlines; my career is progressing as I would like it to do and my CV is extremely healthy for someone at my lifestage. If I can do that on a 35 hour week, that's something to be proud of, not guilty about.

(Now, the fact that I spend all my luxurious free time dicking around on the internet or looking at pictures of cats is perhaps something I can have guilt about instead...)
posted by AFII at 3:47 AM on October 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

You're fine. Productive time management, and especially time management for deep intellectual work, is the subject of Cal Newport's book Deep Work. He's a comp sci prof who is extremely productive and experienced the same things you described. He also describes a number of strategies for making that focused approach more effective, which could be helpful in developing this strength of yours.
posted by philosophygeek at 3:52 AM on October 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Been roughly there, done roughly that. Eventually got PhD in math.

There's a lot of bs toxic culture in grad school, just try to ignore it.

Let your adviser and only your adviser tell you if your work is good.

Set an example for sanity, don't put in crazy hours because of the shitty rat race mentality of some of your peers.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:56 AM on October 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I was in grad school, I lived in group housing with other students. I felt like I was missing out because I never joined in their regular all-nighter sessions. What I grew to understand, though, was that they LIKED those all-nighters. Overworking in certain situations was a lifestyle choice. Some ended up like that because of poor time management, but in other cases it was because it was exactly how they wanted to manage their time.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:31 AM on October 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Whenever I've wondered how my superhuman peers were able to consistently pull longer shifts than I thought possible - whether to study or to party - it was drugs. Always drugs. Undrugged humans are able to focus for roughly 6 hours a day, give or take; also, studies estimate that 30-80 percent of students use prescription stimulants to improve academic performance.

Since your supervisor has remarked that you are "making very good progress in your program", and you have "good marks in all of your courses", I would see that as a sure sign that you are over performing, compared to the average.
posted by rada at 12:39 PM on October 1, 2016

Different field, but when I was coming through law school there was always a group that crowed about how they were martyrs and did nothing but eat and sleep and study. I always thought it was ridiculous. Working efficiently and getting done was my M.O., and it worked fine for me; sounds like it's working fine for you too.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:00 AM on October 3, 2016

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