Billable Hours

How does an academic spend her time?

Felipe Kast Encuentro con alumnos Ing Comercial, PUC

This part, that everybody sees, is a tiny, tiny part of what we actually do.
Image by Aldeasycampamentos, via Wikimedia Commons

Mostly out of your sight, which is why so few people actually understand the nature of academic work. What people see is our classroom teaching, and maybe our “office hours,” designated times when we meet with students. These hours don’t seem to add up to very much. If the average college class meets about 3 hours a week, and an average load for a full-time professor is three classes per semester, that’s nine hours a week. The same prof may have 2 hours of office hours each week, so 11 hours.

11 hours a week? Plus semester breaks and the summer off? Hey, profs have the easiest schedule known to man! Call the media! It’s a scandal that these people get paid at all! Actually, don’t bother to call the media, because they’ve already been called.

Also, this is an utterly false assumption.

Wait, okay, you know of course that profs also have to plan those courses and grade the papers. So, for each weekly 3 hours in the classroom, the prof has to prepare by reading what the students are assigned, composing the lecture and handouts or preparing an agenda for discussion or organizing exercises and other in-class activities.

The standard recommendation for students is to spend 2-3 hours studying for every 1 hour in the classroom, and professors are not only doing what the students are doing (the same reading, plus composing the assignments and fielding all the endless questions and problems coming from students), but they are also actually creating the content for what will be said in the classroom. But let’s be conservative and say that for the prof it’s 3 hours of prep for each hour of classroom time (it’s much more than that when you’re teaching a course for the first time, but we’re using averages here). That’s an extra 9 hours per week per class, and still assuming a 3-course load, that’s 27 hours per week there.

Then, students write papers and take tests that need to be graded. Assuming a class size of 55 with no grading assistants (which is about average, though this like everything else varies widely from school to school and professor to professor), when a student writes a 3-page essay, a professor needs to not just read but closely analyze and evaluate 165 pages. Then she needs to write 55 sets of comments, and record 55 grades (the recording of grades may have been simple once, but the expectation now is that all grades will be posted online on course management software, which anyone will tell you is ornery and unreliable, so you record grades online, laboriously, hoping they get saved properly, then you record them again on paper or in Excel for a backup, and no, you can’t just upload from Excel to course management software, because it will screw up all your data, of course). So, for each written assignment you have about 12-20 hours of work, depending on how efficient you are. The average course in my department involves, say, two exams and 3 short or two longer papers. Average that out over the course of a semester (15 weeks) and you get a very rough estimate of about 6 hours more per week per course. Multiplied by three courses, that’s 18 more hours per week.

So, all told, as a rough estimate, we’re actually talking about 56 hours per week for teaching.

Whoa, you say. Professors only have to write their lectures from scratch the first time, and then you teach it every semester for decades, and you’ve probably read the course readings a million times and don’t have to keep doing it, and everybody knows professors assign grades at random, so this is all way off.

There’s some truth in this (except for that last part). With experience you can be much more efficient than what I’ve laid out above, and thank goodness, because otherwise this model wouldn’t be remotely sustainable. Mind you, professors in mid- and late-career still develop new courses, and even with fully developed courses there is intense preparation to adapt the course to current students and other circumstances, to stay fresh, to incorporate new material in order to stay up to date, and to remind yourself what you did last time, since many of us don’t actually teach the same course over and over every semester. But it does get easier. That said, it’s also much HARDER than I’ve described in the early-career stage when all of these things need to happen at once and all of it is new (and all the other pressures I’m about to talk about are also more intense, and you’re making less money and if you choose to have a family at all you are probably also right in the prime child-rearing phase!).

Of course some people—in any profession!—don’t take their responsibilities seriously. But that shouldn’t define this profession more than it does any other, plus evaluations of our teaching are taken into account in tenure and promotion decisions, and contrary to popular belief, we CAN be fired for bad teaching (it’s complicated, but we can).

So let’s average it out and say about 45-50 hours a week for teaching. That’s more than full time hours.

But, you say, you get all those vacations!

And I’ll tell you that teaching is only about 40-45% of my job description.

What’s the rest? It’s 45-50% research, and 5-10% service to the department, the university, and the profession. (These proportions vary according to the institution and the scholar’s career stage, but all three portions are always present, and in those places where teaching is a significantly higher percentage of the job description, course loads are also comparably higher, so it more or less evens out for our purposes here.)

So how much time does research take up?

Well. That’s much harder to estimate. The real answer is: as much as you can give it. Every waking hour, and many when you should be sleeping, are truly meant to be consumed by your research agenda.

Academia is a profession in the traditional nineteenth-century sense of a profession as a vocation, as a part of your identity, and arguably as a form of work that actually consumes your identity. A doctor is always a doctor, whether she is on-call or not, and a lawyer is always a lawyer. This is why I get to ask my uncle, an orthopedic surgeon, about my back problems when we run into each other at family gatherings (poor man). It’s also why you can ask me any time you see me about what really happened to Grand Duchess Anastasia, and I’ll tell you (she died with her family, and all the impostors were simply impostors—sorry to disappoint!).

This situation is very different from when I worked 12-hour night shifts at a Jeep Grand Cherokee factory in Holland, Michigan. When I did that, I had no idea how the factory worked, and I did not know how the door panels I worked on were actually made (my job was just pushing a button on a molding machine every time the light went green, and then trimming off excess vinyl—a simple job I was so bad at that I nearly cut my finger off once). I knew nothing about what I was doing, and I cared even less. I showed up when I was told to and I followed orders so that they would pay me, and when I wasn’t on duty, I did my best to pretend the place didn’t exist. That was a job. Academia is a profession.

Being a professional means that if you’re on a deadline and the work is taking too long, you keep working until it gets done. You’re paid a salary instead of an hourly wage because you work until you finish what needs to be done, instead of working a set number of hours and then stopping.

So, what needs to be done, for an academic? Everything. Our job is to understand the world better, so literally the project is infinite. There’s always more research.

Okay, but what’s realistically expected? Again, there is no end point, no “finished,” built into this part of our job descriptions. The more research we do, the better. If we do significantly less than our colleagues, we risk being fired (again, yes, we can be fired). But you never know exactly how much is “enough” to avoid losing your job, because that boundary is constantly shifting. So you do as much as you can. Often there are deadlines: you need to meet a publisher’s deadline and/or you need finished books and articles and conference papers on your cv (an academic resume) for every annual review (yes, we have annual reviews of our work).

But all these constraints aren’t actually what drives most of us to work constantly. The thing is, getting to the point of having a research job in academia involves so much time, effort, and sacrifice (for so little ultimate reward, at least financially) that it’s a rare person who gets this far without actually liking and wanting to do research. Most of us are driven in life by wanting to know. So most of us work constantly because we’re driven to work constantly.

So if it’s fun, is it not work? Well, first, it’s work because it produces something the world needs (original knowledge). Second, an academic’s definition of fun might be a little strange to an outsider. Most of us are driven to know, but few people on earth are driven to spend countless hours peering at faint, tiny text or glowing screens, few are driven to write creatively and clearly about abstract and obscure concepts that no one else has written about before under intense pressure, and few of us are driven to do all this knowing that doing it will result in very little remuneration or praise, while not doing it will certainly result in censure and joblessness. So it is work. The motivation to do it may primarily be the joy of learning, but the actual doing of it is a lot of bloody hard work.

Plus, we miss out on a lot when we spend all our time working. Those rare hours spent in hobbies or watching a movie or hanging out with loved ones are almost always suffused with guilt because we’re not working. Many of us recognize that this situation is unhealthy, and ultimately may hinder our ability to be creative and insightful in our research, but it’s a struggle to find balance, and a struggle that itself is not only hard work, but work that we are discouraged to do, since the system (by which I mean the universities who pay us and may fire us) for the most part strongly discourages us from finding that balance.

So, research takes up as much time as there is. It eats up every moment of those so-called “vacations” (most academics can’t afford to travel anyway–what travel we may appear to do is almost always actually work, because we sometimes must travel for conferences or field research).

And what about service? Service means “voluntarily” doing much of the administrative work that makes universities run. Committees of faculty members create curriculum, decide on admission, awards, and other opportunities for students, decide on tenure and promotion of colleagues, manage outreach between the institution and the surrounding community, and so on. As individual faculty members we also advise students, direct their independent studies, supervise their internships, and we organize departmental events and so on.

And then there’s a whole other level of service known as service to the profession. This generally means organizing and participating in conferences (which is how academics share their ongoing research, making the connections that help us further and disseminate knowledge), reviewing books and articles in progress (this is peer review, a process through which new knowledge is vetted), sitting on committees to decide fellowships, and very occasionally being interviewed by someone in the media about what we do (we would do this more often but the media rarely calls, and when they do, they often misquote us or put our work wildly out of context, which is why our work may often sound silly to you).

How much time does all this service take up? It varies vastly, but an average academic is probably sitting in a meeting for at least one or two hours per week, and for many hours on specific occasions when a particular event comes up. Let’s say, averaging it out over the academic year, about 3-4 hours a week for a mid-career scholar for committee work, plus 2-5 hours a week for advising students (this is advising done for the department, unrelated to the advising you do for students in your own courses), and this number applies to all faculty at every career level. Service to the profession also comes in spurts, and is much greater for senior scholars. For early- and mid-career scholars, this kind of service probably averages out to 1-3 hours per week of the school year, and for senior scholars it could be as much as 20 or more hours per week.

So, adding it all up: During term time, faculty spend about 45-50 hrs per week on teaching, and on average between 8 and 18 hours more on service. After the “work day” ends and on weekends, and during breaks including summer, faculty spend every hour they can find on research.

It is true that many of these hours of work are spent not in the classroom (where you see us) but in our offices, at home, in an archive or library or lab, or even in Starbucks. Often we have a lot of flexibility about where we work, and it is a huge advantage to us that if we need to go to the doctor or take care of a sick child, it is often possible to shift around our schedules (except of course when it’s completely not possible to shift anything, as when we have to teach or when an important deadline is looming — I would also add that most other professionals, who have less education than university faculty members, also enjoy this kind of relative flexibility much of the time, so it’s not atypical).

It is also true that in the idiosyncratic academic calendar there are occasional sweet-spot moments when an academic can breathe. For a few days of the semester when students are studying for exams, there might be time to clean out your office and enjoy a lunch with a colleague just for fun. Right after you get tenure, or publish a book, you might grant yourself a week or even two to relax and decompress, so you can be ready for the next hurdle (though you’ll probably feel guilty the whole time anyway — guilt becomes a habit).

But what does it all add up to — how many hours total does the average faculty member really work?


Wait, you say, this is impossible! Indeed, it is. This is why professors are notoriously harried, frantic, and absent-minded. We do at least three jobs in one, and we’re not well paid (on average) for even one of them. For the vast majority of us, it is a labor of love.

Actually, for most of us it’s more of a love/hate or l’amour-fou kind of relationship. It’s insanely difficult. There are huge highs, like when you write your very own book book bookity book! or when a student tells you you changed her life for the better. But those highs happen pretty rarely, and they are separated by vast swathes of low times when you labor away, killing yourself physically and mentally, clinging to the faint belief that your work means enough to make it worth all these sacrifices, only to look up from your desk every once in a while and hear a Congressman telling the public that academics are lazy, overpaid parasites. And then you hear the public — and not an anonymous public, but people like a facebook “friend,” your neighbor, your cousin, and other people who know you — applaud his statement.



Update: important further reading on this topic and more here

And here and this too also this and this and this and you might want to check out the comments for about a thousand other relevant remarks….

This entry was posted in Profession, Research, Teaching and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *