“PGR Students Should Work Very Long Hours”

The logic of this myth seem remorseless and difficult to resist. It seems obvious that the more time you spend on something, the more work you will get done. From a numbers perspective this just seems to make sense.

The problem is that human beings are living things and this variable significantly complicates the numbers. Research has shown that every hour someone works beyond 35 hours in a week, delivers diminishing returns – you get substantially less out of hour 45, then you get out of hour 35. In fact, as you get tired, the fact that you are more likely to make mistakes or miss important issues can mean your research can actually go backwards if you work long hours [1].

Added to this, is the fact that every hour worked over 35 hours a week has a negative impact on your wellbeing, significantly increasing your chances of becoming ill.

It is important to remember that being a PGR student is a marathon, not a sprint. Working extra hours for one week may well help you get a little bit more done but there will be a cost to pay in the following week. As you become more tired not only will you be more likely to make mistakes, problem solving will take longer as your thoughts slow and your productivity rates will drop. You will probably also find that although you are still at your desk or in the lab – you are spending lots of that time not doing any actual work. Our PGR students were very clear that when they were drawn into working long hours, they found themselves spending most of that time not really doing anything useful.

Maintaining good productivity throughout your PGR requires you to maintain a good rate of energy – and for that you have to rest and take breaks from work. 

Like a marathon runner, if you exert all of your energy straight away, at first it may feel like you are making good progress, as you sprint to the front of the field but you will soon become exhausted and it will be less likely that you will have the energy and strength to finish. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that you don’t need to work hard. But productivity is generally enhanced when we work in a structured and disciplined way, keeping regular hours, resting afterwards and sleeping well. Keeping office hours is good practice. 

But I had a brilliant idea at 3am, after working very long hours!

This is an objection that you may well hear from other people who have completed a PhD. It’s an example of a type of cognitive bias. Yes, they may well have had a good idea under these circumstances but what they are missing is that if they hadn’t been working such long hours, that idea would probably have occurred to them sooner. We see this in studies on students cramming for exams. In most cases, cramming has been found to reduce performance but some students will insist that they picked up a mark because of something they crammed the night before. However, research shows that although they may have picked up this mark, they will have lost more marks elsewhere on other answers because of how tired they were. 

You can’t avoid the fact that you are a human being and human beings get tired. When they do the quality of their work drops. Resist this myth, stay productive and well.

Video Resources

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Dr. John Pencavel (Stanford University) Discusses Working Long Hours, Productivity and Wellbeing (Audio)

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PGR Students Discuss Doing Their Studies and not Working Long Hours, and the Strategies they Use



Pencavel, J. (2015). The Productivity of Working Hours. The Economic Journal, 125(589), 2052–2076. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecoj.12166