Workaholism in STEM: Deeper implications of the 16-hour work day.

Prompted by a Science Careers post, and a response, this week in #DiversityJC we asked: Is workaholism a necessary requirement for science – and what are the deeper implications of this mindset?


Our discussion kicked off with a conversation around how this may impact men and women differently. I found it curious that Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti) noted her own long work hours “put off” especially her female students, as they didn’t want that commitment and wanted to “settle down”. For me, this was the crux of the issue. At least outwardly, we still have this myth that women prioritize family over career, leading to the “leaky pipeline“. More recent research is showing this is not the case. Women and men equally prioritize having a family and a career. Instead, the issue is that women may end up with the “double burden” of taking on stereotypical roles at home and trying to keep up with work, and, perhaps more importantly women – and minorities – likely leave STEM due to the every day biases they face and stereotypes that create challenges for moving ahead in their careers (we don’t often discuss how the “leaky pipeline” may also be about minorities – although this would discredit the idea that it’s due to women leaving to procreate). In addition, many women and minorities also leave when they feel their careers don’t value social justice or outreach enough.

The thing is this: It’s not that women leave to have families, or that women believe they can’t have the home life they envision and work the crazy hours, or that women value family over work more than men. Maybe it’s more that women and men both already see women as taking on those responsibilities, and make those decisions. Because that’s what we think we’re supposed to do. We’ve talked about this before.

We also should remember that the gendered aspects of these decisions is detrimental for women and men:

And we’ve talked more about this here.


In addition to the gendered aspects of the workaholic mindset, we wanted to dig in a bit deeper

There is privilege tied to being able to work long hours and have kids. That privilege likely includes a partner (as is the case here), as well as a workplace that allows your “kids to crawl around the lab“. Moreover, I’d say there’s privilege in the mindset that you deserve this kind of support in your personal life so you can work 16-17 hours a day. That someone will clean the house, change the diapers, cook the meals. There is also privilege in a workplace that allows your children to be present, that you have access to whenever you want it, that has the resources available to you to do such intense work for so long. The privilege that assumes you can get to work safely and easily to be there very early and leave very late. There is privilege in this that we take for granted.


We also wanted to get into how this workaholic mindset affected more of our lives – that it had broader implications for us as people. Work-life balance isn’t just for balancing kids. First, we may have additional responsibilities.

We may be going through a divorce, taking care of aging parents, or need to deal with personal crises. These are critical, yet we rarely acknowledge them or talk about them. For me, I had a major family emergency mid-way through my PhD that my family is still dealing with. I needed a month away from my research, and much additional time (and therapy) in the years that followed to process, including considering if I should put my PhD on hold. Having a supporting advisor and committee as well as the time away from work was crucial to getting through this.


Second, it also just means what we value beyond work – and not always the serious stuff.

We all deserve the ability to balance our work with things outside it that matter to us. I think we often believe work-life balance is about having kids – but as someone who doesn’t want kids, I also deserve time away from the office – without guilt. These additional aspects, and feeling free to enjoy them as well as spending time with our kids and loved ones, is all critical for mental health – something we’ve also talked about and a very serious concern in the sciences we are not great at dealing with.


Third, there are additional responsibilities within our careers that we de-value or simply ignore under the workaholic mindset. When we believe we must work excessive hours, it constrains other aspects of our professional lives. This certainly impacts us early career scientists.

Another point from Ian (@IHStreet), this kind of pressure can also limit our ability to develop skills in teaching, to seek out and actively participate in mentoring students, and do outreach. This are important for our careers, and they’re fulfilling and enjoyable, but may not be counted as “science”.


Finally, an additional aspect of workaholism that really struck me as important was how it intersects with diversity and social justice work. This work is often undervalued already, and overlooked in terms of the tenure process, for instance. In addition, the people most often doing this work are likely those that are in the underrepresented groups themselves – they know first hand the need for this work, and likely feel more responsibility to do it. Therefore, they end up with more of the burden of social justice and diversity work that is already undervalued and overlooked – and they’re under the workaholic mentality too. How does this fit in when you’re also under pressure to work long hours on your research?


Taking all of this together, I felt the conversation made clear that workalism is not generally helpful in science when it is used as some idealic standard we all must achieve to be “serious” scientists. Moreover, the workaholic mindset may be a myth. As the original post points out, people often overestimate how much we actually work, meaning the 16-17 hour work day is not a reality.

In addition, working more doesn’t always mean working better.

…and not all institutions have this workaholic mentality.

So. How to make a difference? How do we combat workaholism? Well, it does start with each of us – first making a change in our mindset and ignoring the workaholic mentality as necessary.

We also need to figure out how to balance your own life, and what works for you personally.

Maybe part of this is seeking out role models who strike the balance you’d like to emulate…

…and be a role model for life beyond the lab yourself.


But the end of the day, this all should depend on what life you want. Where that balance is for you. As Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti) pointed out, if you love your work, the long hours may be want you want to do. If so, great! But it should be about choice. We should also be recognizing what makes those long hours possible for us – whether that’s a spouse with less hours, or leaving the laundry another week – and allow other people to balance their time, their way. In addition, especially if we are not working for diversity or social justice but we say it matters to us, we need to speak up for our colleagues doing that work and make sure it is also valued. It matters for your colleagues, and it absolutely matters for your students.


We want to be happy, healthy, productive scientists, and a healthy balance in life and work is critical – as well as a welcoming, inclusive institution and campus.

Thanks to everyone who joined us! It was clearly an important topic, and we covered a lot of ground. Some additional resources:

From Ian Street (@IHStreet): NPR Planet Money – What We Work So Much
From Melanie Nelson (@melanie_nelson): Productivity Takes Work
From biochem belle (@biochembelle): The Massive Fitness Trend That’s Not Actually Healthy At All
From Matt Burgess (@matthewgburgess): Why Not Have A Life? (conveniently follows the piece we’re talking about here..)
And some time tracking apps:

biochem belle recommends Hours and Toggl
Jacquelyn Gill (‏@JacquelynGill): ATracker (and watch for a post on this on her blog).

Hope you enjoyed as much as we did – and please leave comments or anything I missed in the comments!


Thank you and take care until next time!

Emily K (@DrEmilySKlein)
Doctor PMS (‏@Doctor_PMS)
Ian Street (@IHStreet)

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