Unsustainable Pace

Early in my PhD, attending my first conference, in fact, I stated that I usually don’t work on weekends and public holidays. Several jaws dropped. “How do you ever want to finish your PhD?,” I was asked.

A true academic never stops. He’s one with his topic. His research never ends; neither does his striving. A perfect symbiosis for the greater good and all of humanity. Well… except for the academic, that is.

From my early childhood through my adolescence I’ve been a swimmer. I’ve spent hours beyond count drawing lane after lane, training technique, force, and stamina. Swimming requires much investment, simply because our bodies are considerably less well-suited for swimming than, say, for running.

My trainer used to say: “after the signal, there comes a splash; and then there comes another splash, which is Sven.” I’ve never been a sprinter. However, this didn’t matter much for any discipline above 100 meter, because I could sustain a relatively high pace.

I’m not afraid of effort or exertion. I’m perfectly willing to give all I got and to also push my limits, if necessary and purposeful. But I refuse to go all out with half a marathon ahead. This does not serve a purpose. It does not prove strength. It is just a bad strategy.

No one can go at maximum speed for a longer distance. Maximum speed is for the final spurt towards the finishing line, when you know you can rest afterwards. If you go too fast from the start, you may even get in the lead, but when you reach your limit too early, you collapse halfway through the race. And then the hedgehog beats the hare.

I strongly believe in the concept of sustainable pace. Beyond sports. A PhD, or any other job whose duration exceeds a few months, is a marathon, so the same rules apply.1

Working 12+ hours per days, 7 days a week is far beyond sustainable. Still, I’ve met many people who (pretend to) keep such a speed up for years, which puts others, especially newcomers, under the impression that this is required. After all, a colleague who reports every morning on the hours he invested last night (after you left) makes you feel unproductive. However, keep in mind that hours spent is not a measure of productivity.

Of course, like every other PhD student, I always have more to do than I can handle. but throwing in additional 5 hours per day doesn’t change this. The world doesn’t collapse when we go on vacation,2 so it won’t collapse when we go home in the evening. This insight helps me not to feel like drowning in work.

Also, after almost 4 years as a PhD student, I can say that I’m not less productive than others, even though I still don’t usually work on weekends and public holidays. On the contrary, allowing myself freetime helps me focus in my work time. This makes me more productive.

I’m not afraid to work hard. I’m perfectly willing to stay longer when a deadline approaches. But I refuse to work 24/7 as a general work mode. This does not serve a purpose. It does not prove dedication or qualification. It is just a bad strategy.

  1. Interestingly, a study by the Council of Graduate Schools shows that only 57 percent of all PhD students finish their degree after 10 years of effort. Of the PhD students in Computer Science it’s even only 41 percent. Though there are certainly many different factors at play here, these statistics underline that a PhD is a challenging, long-term endeavour. 

  2. I mean vacation as in leaving the laptop at home and not reading emails. 

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