In defense of the 9-5: flexible hours aren’t productive hours

I loved the schedule flexibility that graduate school provided me for four years. I could work at my most productive times, work from home, work while traveling, and work from coffee shops. I was also fortunate to join a lab with a great work-life balance. We often left work early for yoga or climbing or happy hour, rarely worked weekends, and encouraged each other to take vacations after milestones like candidacy exams. I was pretty convinced I was operating at my maximum productive-happy capacity. 

Until I lost that flexibility. 

This summer, I had the unique opportunity to finish my PhD research in an industry lab. The entirety of my project had been industry-funded, so it was a logical final step for me to transfer the technology I’d developed and help troubleshoot problems that came with switching labs and instruments and running a lot more samples. 

Same me, same project, same advisor, different environment. What a beautifully controlled experiment!

I fully intended to work as much as possible this summer. I went into it knowing I had to collect my data and write up my results immediately, since I wouldn’t be in lab to run more experiments after the summer was over. I planned to do my experiments during the week in lab and write on the weekends – it was just three months and I’d be living in basically the middle of nowhere, away from my friends and family, so what else would I have to do?

My mind totally changed at my first day orientation. I was now legally required to take a lunch break before I’d been at work for five hours. My manager insisted I never answer work emails after I went home or on weekends. And most importantly, I had to track my hours and couldn’t work overtime. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself – I had never been told any of these things in academia and I was astonished at the clear expectations and incredible emphasis on life outside of work. It was such a shock that I was sure I was going to hate it. How could I ever be as productive as I was back at school with all these “restrictions?”

How could I ever be as productive as I was back at school with all these “restrictions?”

Since I couldn’t execute the master plan I’d come up with before arriving, I decided to change it up. (Note: I am one of those type A people who does not like to “change it up.” Re-evaluating was a very conscious decision.)

I decided I would take hour-long lunch breaks. This gave me time to walk outside, find a nice place to sit and eat my lunch, all while listening to an audiobook. I cannot stress how much I did not do anything like this in grad school. I always ate lunch at my desk, often during downtime in my experiments to “maximize my productivity.” In this new environment where I was sitting in the lab or at my desk a lot more and walking a lot less, these lunchtime walks outside were a beautiful midday reprieve and reset.

I made a deliberate decision to leave my data on my work computer. Though I needed my personal laptop at work for accessing publications and looking through old data, my work computer was new and ergonomic, so why hunch over my tiny laptop? I could’ve kept my data on a flash drive to access it at home, but I didn’t. Everyone around me did their work at work, and really tried to keep work out of their time off. I’m rarely productive after 5 p.m. regardless, so this was an easy choice to maintain.

I even stopped responding to my grad school email outside of work hours! Since I was dealing with the West Coast time difference, which meant being flooded with emails by the time I woke up in the morning, I set my iPhone screen time limits to keep my email turned off until I got to work. This in particular eliminated a lot of stress, and I plan to maintain it as much as possible in the future. 

I also decided I would fully and completely take weekends off. In grad school, I was 50/50 on this. Being in a long distance relationship forced me (in the best way) to take some weekends off to see my partner, but I often worked the weekends that I didn’t, out of guilt or to try and get ahead (which always felt more like catch up). If I took a personal day during the week, I often came in on the weekend to make up for it. 

This summer, I took every single weekend off. And I didn’t sit around my apartment — I was only there temporarily and didn’t have much cleaning to do, or errands to run, or friends to catch up with outside of work — I left town. I was fortunate to be living in California, within easy driving distance to many national parks and bigger cities. I booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find for one night in a different place every weekend and did my best to hit all the things any given place was known for, all day Saturday and Sunday. 

This summer, I took every single weekend off.

I had never taken weekends off with such commitment and regularity. I came to graduate school straight out of undergrad and had always been a workaholic. I knew the benefit of taking time away, which was obvious after any vacation or holiday break, and I tried to do so as much as I could. But the flexibility of graduate school work made me feel like weekends were just as available as weekdays for lab work, writing, and keeping up with the literature. That flexibility took advantage of my drive and love for my work and insatiable need to feel productive. 

So what were the results of my experiment?

I slept so well after weekends filled with walking or hiking, navigating new places, and processing new information. 

I knew I was affected by the weather and amount of sunlight I got, but this really brought it home for me: spending my lunch hours and weekends fully outside, in the beautiful California sunshine did wonders for my mood and stress level.

I always came to work with a clear head on Monday mornings. I’m a big fan of “Monday planning” on Friday afternoons, when I write out what needs to be done and what problems I’m facing. In graduate school, I would often mull over these things on weekends, or even actively work on them. But this summer, I let my subconscious do the processing and found that Monday morning brought clarity and new ideas.

I was so productive in the time I spent at work. My industry coworkers didn’t sit around and chat like my grad school lab mates and I did, and while I missed their camaraderie and friendship, I never got distracted or demotivated during the workday. If I had a problem, my team called a meeting and solutions were determined right away — sometimes just minutes after I noticed what was going on. Gone were the days of struggling through a problem on my own, racking my head until my next one-on-one meeting with my advisor. I felt focused and supported. 

Most notably, I was happier in my time not at work, because it never even felt like an option to be working anymore. Once I’d clocked in my eight hours, my day was over. I didn’t fight it. I did the work that I loved at my maximum capacity, and then I was done. I read books and cooked dinner, planned my weekends, called my partner and friends, went to yoga, and didn’t check my email or mull over a potential experiment. It was still my PhD research, so don’t think there weren’t bad or stressful moments — I still hadn’t defended, and there is (at the time of this writing) plenty of work left to do. But there were less of these moments, and I recovered from them faster. 

We need to remove the guilt surrounding not only weekends but vacations, personal days, and mental health days in academia.

The results of my summer-long experiment make it clear to me that we need to advocate for an eight-hour work day and full weekends off in graduate school. Graduate students need to be paid sufficiently so they can live comfortably off their stipends, so that time off is truly achievable. We need to normalize and remove the guilt surrounding not only weekends but vacations, personal days, and mental health days in academia. We need to eliminate the possibility of working at any given time if we want to stop exploiting underpaid but highly skilled and motivated workers. Flexibility, for those who need it, can still be found within this structure through clear expectations and consistent routes of communication. 

Have you maintained or experimented with a strict eight-hour workday during graduate school? Have you otherwise rebelled against the flexibility? I’d love to hear about it!

Madeleine Y Bee
Madeleine Y Bee

Madeleine is a PhD Candidate in Food Science at Cornell University, where her research focuses on the developing a novel volatile analysis technique, for measuring aroma in wine and grapes by ambient ionization mass spectrometry. She has been actively involved in women’s empowerment and professional development efforts across on campus, and served on the organizing committee for ComSciCon – New York 2019. Off campus, she just completed her yoga teaching certification and loves cooking, baking, and traveling.

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