Do scientists work too hard?
Study looks at which countries have the hardest-working scientists – and those most likely to work outside of ‘normal hours’
By Richard B. Primack, PhD Posted on 3 October 2013[caption align="alignright"]Richard Primack, PhD, does field work in Massachusetts.[/caption]
Dr. Richard B. Primack (email@example.com) is a professor in the Department of Biology at Boston University and Editor-in-Chief of Biological Conservation, an Elsevier journal focusing on the protection of biodiversity. He studies the effects of climate change on the plants and animals of Massachusetts using the observations of Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s as a starting point.
Here, he writes about a study he co-authored in Biological Conservation titled "Are conservation biologists working too hard? He worked with lead author Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, Associate Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and Dr. Lian Pin Koh, Assistant Professor of Applied Ecology and Conservation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and an Editor of Biological Conservation.
It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business. — Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau thought that people worked too hard and did not have enough time to devote to the really important things in life.
To find out how hard scientists actually work, my colleagues Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, Lian Pin Koh and I analyzed the day and time of submission for 10,000 manuscript submissions and almost 15,000 reviews sent to the scientific journal Biological Conservation.
[caption align="alignleft" width="400"]Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, lead author of the study, reviews a manuscript while traveling to a field site in Malaysia.[/caption]
Our results showed that these scientists do a substantial amount their work late at night (16% of the manuscripts) and on weekends (11% of the manuscripts and 12% of the reviews); and that this work outside of normal hours has been increasing at about 5% to 6% per year.
Japanese and Mexican scientists stood out for working late at night and Chinese and Indian scientists worked far more than average on weekends. In contrast, Belgian and Norwegian scientists did not work much on weekends, and Finnish scientists did not work at night. American and British scientists had average work habits, working moderate amounts on weekends and evenings.
Overall this study shows that conservation biologists and potentially other scientists and academics do a considerable amount of their work outside regular working hours. This can negatively affect the scientists' life-work balance, impacting relationships with family and friends, physical exercise, or just resting time.
We concluded that universities and scientific institutions need to take steps to ensure that scientists find the right balance between work and personal life, and do not feel compelled to sacrifice one at the expense of the other.
On a humorous note, we admit that this study was conducted entirely without any grant support and largely after regular working hours ― mostly on holidays and weekends ― resulting in the unfortunate neglect of our families and loved ones.Of course, is it possible that conservation biologists just like what we are doing and for us it is not work. After all, Thoreau must have spent lots of his evenings and weekends writing the 2 million words in his journals.[divider]
Read the study
On a personal note …
I have been struggling with my own life-work balance over the past few years. This life-work balance struggle seems to be very common in modern academia and, as we point out in the paper, it can have negative effects on the quality of the research being done and researchers' personal lives. Working on this study forced me to be more reflective about my own working habits – now I allocate more time for family and non-work activities than I used to.
- — Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, PhD[divider]
Until we saw the data, I thought Americans were about the hardest working scientists in the world, but they are about average. In my own case, I am pretty much working all of the time, other than when I am occupied with family and friends or exercising.
— Richard B. Primack, PhD[divider]
Most conservation biologists are great at what they do in the lab and in the field, but are often terrible at knowing when to stop working. Part of the problem is that we just don't think of it as work! That is why I always appreciate my wife for yelling at me to get out of the office and back home for dinner.