The depressing metrics of academic work


A couple of years ago, on a late Friday afternoon in the lab, I stumbled upon an article entitled How Many Hours Of Minimum Wage Work It Takes To Buy A Beer Around The World. Finding creative ways to measure the relation between wages and cost of living seems to be a hobby of many economists and journalists. Still, on a Friday afternoon this topic seemed wholly appropriate.

At the time I was working in London so I quickly located the metric for the UK. According to the article 30 minutes of labour would suffice for an average minimum wage-earning Briton to buy an average beer. However, as a scientist and an egocentric, this generic answer did not satisfy my needs so I began calculating my own labour-to-beer metric. The pub down the road charged £4 for a decent pint of ale so all I needed to calculate was my wages per hour and do the ratio.

That’s where things started to crumble.

Academic scientists often point to the flexible hours as a perk of the job but invariably the perk turns to burden. The increasing pressure to deliver high-impact research means lab hours are long and weekends often spent in the company of DNA extraction kits and deadly chemicals with unpronounceable names. Even in nations where worker rights are enshrined and strictly upheld, as is the case of Sweden, scientists fall under the radar and operate in a parallel libertarian universe. This leads to the contrasting image where the permanent-contracted admin staff clocks out at 4 pm leaving the eternally-temporary-contracted scientists behind for an additional 3 or 4 hours of work.

Of course no law prevents a scientist from doing a 9 to 5 workday and staying away from the laboratory on weekends. However, the 9 to 5 scientist will be competing with the 9 to 9 all-weekends-in scientist for an increasingly limited number of grants and tenure track positions which will inevitably lead to his or her Darwinistic demise. The result of this pressure is the establishment of a culture of long hours and work-life imbalance.

The more I thought about this the further the beer became until it was but a speck of dust. I looked blankly at the computer screen. Then, all of the sudden, a colleague barged in. Coat in hand and ready to go.

“It’s Friday afternoon man! Let’s grab a beer” – she said. And off we went.