Marginal Utility at Work and Play

Thursday, January 08, 2015

An academic researcher tackles a frequent question: "If [academics] have such freedom, why are they so overworked?" His answer is good, and applies equally well to anyone with a sideline like writing that doesn't pay the bills:

Finally, when I'm done with all of the above and there are no urgent mails awaiting reply in my inbox, I could sit down with my own idea, write some code of my own, run my own experiments and write a paper with myself as first author. In other words, do some research of my own. This rarely happens, as I rarely get to this point and when I do I rarely have any energy left.

The utility of that sixtieth work hour is so much higher than the tenth or twentieth because I can use it do my own research. If I work 60 hours rather than 40, I don't get 50% more of my own research done, but almost infinitely much more, as I would otherwise get almost none of my own research done. Given that I am interested in doing research of my own, there is a very strong incentive to work very long hours. It is not that I am uninterested in any of the other parts of my job - I enjoy all of them, except grant writing and meetings with management - but I am more interested in research.

You could compare the job of an academic to having a teaching and administration job and having research as a hobby. Except that the "hobby" is the presumed core of the job as advertised, and the reason you applied for the job.
It is interesting that a frequent complaint about the research orientation of many universities is that it causes the teaching to suffer. Based on this explanation, it would seem that the research suffers even more. It's too bad that most people do not question "how things are done" more often, as this type of arrangement seems ripe for re-thinking.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

‘when I do I rarely have any energy left’

This is my problem with hobbies like writing and gardening; even reading and writing scientific papers. I’m not a morning person. Mid to late afternoon is my most productive period but by the time I finish work and get myself and my son home it is usually past 6PM. Add to that various chores, trips to the gym, taking my son to swimming practice and unexpected items. By the time I get all this done, I am often no longer motivated or I am just too tired to concentrate or there is not much time left before bed anyway (getting enough sleep to be alert is related issue). Saturdays are often taken doing stuff with my family, shopping etc. That leaves Sunday afternoon. I recently wrote a textbook chapter all during successive Sunday afternoons and that is when I do most of my editing and writing for my writer’s group, gardening in the summer, refilling the bird feeder etc. Unfortunately, my other hobby (astronomy) cannot be accomplished on Sunday afternoon and so I haven’t done much lately.

That said, the above can too easily be used as an excuse rather than a real reason. I know this because when I am highly motivated to do something, I (somehow) find the time.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! I wouldn't call myself a "morning person" either, but I normally do want to rise with the sun. This -- and that fact that, with small children at home, no other time is even remotely possible but very early or very late -- has made waking at 3:00 a.m. to write palatable to me.

That said, the quality of this time often suffers due to wakings, but it's better than nothing and it will improve.