On Friday I have the day off, thanks to the wedding of a fantastically privileged prince to, as Tim Dowling nicely put it (and appropriately for this blog),

…Future princess, common Kate;
As common as the common skate,
Which is to say, quite rare these days…

Add this to the rather more proletarian May Day holiday on Monday, and last weekend’s Easter break (Good Friday? Yes, and good Monday too ta very much) and that makes 11 workdays in three weeks.

Which led me to wonder, how many other academic scientists will do as I have done, and take off every minute offered? I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the culture of ridiculous working hours in science, triggered by Rachel Bowden’s Nature Jobs blog a couple of weeks back. More particularly, I’ve been working myself into a state of some annoyance about what I perceive to be a bit of macho posturing, of bragging about the hours one works.

The biologist Edward O. Wilson – whose work and writing on biodiversity I respect and admire very much – has been quoted (I can’t find the source) as saying that a good scientist should expect to work 80 hours a week. 40 for research, 40 for admin, teaching, etc. This figure seems to be bandied around almost as something to aspire to, and I suppose that during your PhD, there is something kind of rights-of-passage about really putting in the hours, in the manner of junior hospital doctors. But, perhaps because I gave up trying to maintain anything like that pace a while ago (still more so since the birth of my son), it aggravates me that anyone thinks that, for a normal person, an 80 hour working week could possibly be sustained over a period of years, decades even.

Let’s do the maths (as Mark insists to Jeremy in an episode of Peep Show, the ‘s’ on the end there is non-negotiable).

There are 168 hours in the week, so 88 after your 80 hours of work.

Let’s assume you sleep for 7 hours a night – personally I’d prefer more, but 7 sounds reasonable. So, you now have 39 waking hours left.

Some of that will be filled with the business of staying alive. Let’s say 2 hours a day for preparing and eating food. More will be taken up with remaining vaguely hygienic in body and home – does an average of an hour a day for washing self and clothes, cleaning the house, doing any essential DIY tasks that arise, tidying the garden, buying groceries, etc., sound about right?

OK. You have 18 hours left. You’ll spend some of those commuting to work and back – an hour a day, if you’re lucky, which – assuming you spread your 80 hours over 6 days, brings you down to 12 hours.

12 hours a week, every week, to do everything else. To socialise, chat to family and friends on the phone, play with your kids (assuming you ever found the time to perform the various tasks necessary to produce any), exercise, watch TV, whatever.

It’s worth laying these sums out in black and white because I know that people do feel pressured into working stupid hours (as a matter of course, I mean, not just for the occasional mad week before a deadline, which we all do). My message is that there are two ways to survive such a punishing schedule.

First, you could live to work. If you have no interest in food as anything other than fuel; if you are prepared to forego hobbies, exercise, a social life of any real meaning; then I suppose you could just about cram it in.

Second – and this I suspect is the route taken by most senior academics who are proud of their long hours at the desk – you can perform an accounting trick. You acquire a spouse who is prepared to do all of the work of making life run smoothly, and you simply appropriate their 40 hours. 80 hours work between a couple? (With sole credit to the partner in paid employment, of course.) Easy enough. But it’s not a path that many of us particularly want to follow.

So, I’ll be enjoying my bank holiday weekends. And working damn hard – during office hours – when I get back.