Work hours in humanities grad school?
November 21, 2019 12:52 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for advice from academics in humanities fields on how to strike a balance between pushing yourself and taking breaks in grad school.

I am in the early stages of a PhD in a humanities discipline. (Maybe more field-specific advice will be more helpful, but I'm worried about anonymity, so I'll just say that this discipline is associated with some famous Greek people and has a reputation for being extremely abstract.) I probably spend around 11-12 hours in classes, between coursework and TA responsibilities. Reading loads tend to be quite reasonable, and I start my term papers early, so I generally have a lot of free time. But it seems to me like it's probably a good idea to spend a good chunk of time reading up on stuff in my areas of interest, taking notes on it, working on potential paper projects, submitting to conferences, etc.

My question is basically, how do I decide how much time to spend working on "extracurricular" stuff like that? I strongly suspect that "however much I feel like" is going to be a bad guide, because I'm afraid I'd never do anything except the bare minimum. I think I'm the kind of person who will need some degree of self-imposed structure in order to get anything done, but the question is how much.

I know that recently people have talked about the idea that we shouldn't encourage grad students & junior faculty to be working more than 40hrs/week, and that there's considerable psychological evidence to suggest that more than that is going to be a recipe for burnout, at least for most people. So I decided to set 40hrs/week as my target. Whatever time I have left over from classes, I fill up with other reading and writing, until I hit that target. The problem is that I am finding it increasingly hard to meet that target - most weeks I'm a couple hours or so short, and as the semester goes on I am finding (unsurprisingly, I guess) that the gap grows wider.

I frankly would like to reduce my target just a little bit, to like 35 or something, just so I have a few more hours in the week to, you know, have hobbies and ever go outside. But then I feel like, come on, everyone works at least a 40hr week, if I can't handle that then I must have a terrible attention span or be really lazy or something?

I am really having trouble finding anything online that addresses this problem, like, at all. And my professors are extremely cagey about it as well. Maybe this is because it just doesn't admit of a universal answer. But advice, particularly from people who have ""made it"", would be very helpful. Thank you!
posted by myitkyina to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Honestly if you are only counting actual working time and you are getting close to 40 hours, you are probably doing more (and definitely more productively) than most people who claim to be working 50+ hours. Those people are often including in their 50 hours short breaks, meetings and admin (which are huge time sucks for academics and which you probably don't have a ton of yet) travel to meetings, blending dealing with personal and work email etc.

As a full time academic, I spend a lot more than 40 hours doing work, and doing work adjacent stuff like the above. But I probably only get to spend 10-ish hours in the average week on actual research (reading and writing) and objectively, I still get a lot done.
posted by lollusc at 1:37 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: (And if any of my grad students were spending even 35 hours per week on their research I'd be super happy. My guess is it ranges between 5 and 20-ish. But they all have at least part time jobs and most have kids.)

The other thing you should work on is rather than spending more hours, how to be more efficient with the hours you do have. That will serve you better going forward. E.g work out strategies, software, workflow that lets you read, write, recall things, find things, track things, and notice things faster and better
posted by lollusc at 1:41 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I promise not to thread-sit, but since that's an important detail: yes, I keep track with a timer that I run only when I'm actually doing work, and pause if I suddenly feel the need to eat a snack or check Facebook. But I am counting sitting in lecture, grading exams, and meeting with professors as work time.
posted by myitkyina at 1:44 PM on November 21, 2019

Best answer: Companies that actually record billed time that way, like accounting firms, do not expect a 40-hour-a-week employee to bill 40 hours--I routinely billed like 7 hours a day when I worked 8. It is completely normal outside of academia to work a 40-hour week that includes 30-35 hours of actual work, and probably not that unusual to find people where the number would be even lower than that. If you need to do more to get enough done, of course, that's another issue, but at 40 hours of timed work effort per week, you are definitely in the realm that would be considered overtime in a non-exempt job. Cutting back from that level is entirely reasonable for all the reasons you were looking at 40 hours in the first place.
posted by Sequence at 2:10 PM on November 21, 2019

Having done both humanities grad school (well, a MFA in creative writing, if that's close enough) and full-time jobs, my experience is that academic reading and academic writing require substantially more intense concentration than most of the stuff you would do at most full-time jobs, and ... maybe there are humans who can maintain that level of concentration for forty hours a week, but I don't actually know any. So "everyone works at least a 40hr week" is the wrong way to look at it - that includes a lot of busywork and a lot of things that are work but not work that requires sustained focused thinking.

I wonder if it would be more helpful to set targets in terms of accomplishments (articles read, progress on conference submissions) than in terms of hours spent.

FWIW, I found that I could get at BEST 3-4 hours of intensive work out of myself per day, and that couldn't be on top of 4-5 hours of less intensive work (Intensive = reading, writing, THOUGHTFUL grading; less intensive = attending lectures, class prep, meetings, more superficial grading). So that basically worked out to 1-2 hours most weekdays and 3-4 hours on weekends. That may be low; I do have some mental health / executive function / attention stuff going on, but I wasn't an underachiever in relation to the rest of my cohort.
posted by Jeanne at 2:13 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

I got a terminal Masters in Philosophy, so I stopped before it got too crazy but...really, it’s a “boom/bust” system in abstract humanities graduate level work. There were weeks at a time where I was working literally from waking to sleeping, and there were times where I was definitely “working for fun” ie, reading Camus for intellectual pleasure instead of Kant for my thesis—or taking a month off from my thesis to read all of Jack London. But leisure time always looked like work, in the sense that I was always in that headspace.
Graduate work in abstract intellectual fields is notorious for eating your entire life during the process of the degree for a reason—you’re in a rarified environment with unusually high expectation of engagement and you chose this, so you will pull 70 hour weeks without seeing an alternative.
Get used to using the pomodoro method when working alone, taking 5 minute breaks every 25 minutes, and 30 min breaks every 2 hours. Take a walk once a day. Once you’re writing the dissertation, having a habit of walking the hell away for an hour or two might be the only time you’re not writing, reading or stressing. But the expectation is that the PhD is likely to be the most work you do per week for the duration of your career (barring maybe your last year before tenure).
posted by zinful at 2:36 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a PhD in your field, but in every grad program (and most other jobs), there are (A) some crazed overachievers, (B) a handful of bluffers who claim they're too busy to sleep but aren't, and then, at the other end of the spectrum, (C) a few people who legitimately aren't doing the work.

What that leaves is the large majority of people who are doing just fine, but who are anxious that, because they don't seem to be doing as much as the people in group (A) or (B), they must be in group (C).

It sounds to me like you're comfortably in the majority of people who are doing just fine, whether you're working 25-40 hours a week. Switch from a time-based approach to an accomplishment-based one as you see fit and as a given task demands, and you'll continue being fine. Maybe go a bit easier on yourself. The PhD is a long haul and you can't burn yourself out early.
posted by Beardman at 2:36 PM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I did my (non-humanities) PhD I ended up ‘working’ a lot it my head while doing other things. Like figuring out a big angle or framing on something while out for a walk or grocery shopping or whatever.

That time all counts too.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:51 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Physicist (theory/numerics) here, so not in your field, but: nthing that 30-35 hours of actual, focused work sounds like quite a lot. I found 50 hours of quote-unquote "work" to be a pretty good number for me, but that included lunches, kibbitzing with other grad students/postdocs over coffee, that sort of thing. (Not to mention a certain amount of Metafilter...)

The kibbitzing was very, very valuable---in some sense that's where I really learned to be a physicist---but it's not what you're counting here.
posted by golwengaud at 7:33 PM on November 21, 2019

I will say that I only came to appreciate how MUCH time I had to read what I felt like reading and follow new ideas where they led and spend time just thinking than I ever had again after I started my path to tenure. Now I have far too much to read that I must get done, much of which is uninspiring or just plain mind-numbing administrative shit. I seriously have come to romanticize grad school, albeit teaching and other obligatory work can be draining for a grad student, you will never again be as free to work on yourself and your own projects as you are now.

May you also never again be as poor!
posted by spitbull at 9:35 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I'm finishing a PhD in the humanities now and I can get MAYBE 20 hours of pomodoro-on, focused reading and writing done per week, and even that is a lot. I'll often spend another 10-20 hours puttering -- organizing old notes and photos, entering stuff into Zotero, ordering books through ILL, formatting stuff, cleaning up footnotes, chit chatting in the lounge, responding to emails. But I also strongly believe in walking away completely when you're starting to lose focus.

But if you are happy putting in more hours, that's great! Do make sure you're taking notes in a text-searchable format and keeping your digital bibliography updated, otherwise have at it!
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:30 AM on November 22, 2019

Best answer: I am an academic mathematician. Math is not one of the humanities but its work structure has a lot in common with a humanities field, philosophy, which I'm imagining is what you're in.

I tell my grad students that I expect them to put in two hours a day on actually working on math research. (That means: trying to prove theorems, reading and studying papers in their area, but not e.g. attending seminar.)

Two hours a day doesn't sound like a lot. But if you actually do it, it's plenty. Yes, I've seen Ph.D. students languish and be unproductive. But it's not because they don't work 40 hours a week on their thesis; it's because they go weeks without working on their thesis. And I think an unrealistic expectation of daily hours is part of that. If you have a day where you only have a little time free between meetings, seminars, and teaching, it's easy to say "today's not gonna be a work day, I'll get back to research work tomorrow." That is what not to do. (Especially since, as spitbull says above, if you do end up as a faculty member you will never have a day that doesn't have a lot of admin work and teaching and seminars.)

Evidence that my advice is OK: I have advised 15 Ph.D. students at a department that is highly ranked but isn't Harvard or Princeton, all finished the degree, almost all are currently in math research positions.

Evidence that my advice is meant sincerely: I am now going to get my butt off MetaFilter and put an hour into a paper that has been languishing for a while before I teach at 11.
posted by escabeche at 7:25 AM on November 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

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