In an earlier post, I compared life in academia with life in industry. One recurring argument to favour an academic job over an industry job is freedom.
Of course, the feeling of freedom is fundamentally subjective. And we have a strong incentive to feel free, and to present ourselves as free. Freedom is strongly linked with social status. Telling people that you are free to do whatever you want in your job is signalling your high status.
So how can you tell how much freedom you have?
I have long proposed the retirement freedom test. If you were really free in your job, you would continue it into your retirement. Another test is the lottery ticket test: would you keep your job if you won the lottery? But these tests are, again, somewhat subjective. Most people only retire once and they usually cannot tell ahead of time what retirement will be like.
For something more immediate, more measurable, I propose the week-end test. I conjecture that, given a choice, most people with a family would want to be free on week-ends to spend all their time with their kids. (Admittedly, others might want to dedicate their week-ends to unbridled and continuous kinky sex. But you get my point.)
So anyone who works on week-end fails the week-end freedom test. If you are checking emails from work on week-ends, you fail.
So how do professors do? In my experience, many of them fail the week-end freedom test. Of course, most of the professors I know are in computer science… and a large fraction of them are active researchers. So my sample is not representative. Nevertheless, many professors who claim to love their freedom fail the week-end test miserably. I know because I got emails from them on week-ends.
Of course, there is no arguing with subjective experience. You can fail the week-end test and claim that it is by choice. But what does it mean objectively?
You pity the poor lawyer at a big law firm who has to prepare his files every Saturday instead of playing baseball with his son. But your case is different: you love your job and that is why you work 60 hours a week. Your decision is entirely yours and it has nothing to do with the professional pressure you are feeling. You genuinely enjoy preparing this new research grant on Sunday instead of teaching your kid to swim. Sure, all professors in your department work on week-ends, except this weirdo who will never get promoted (does he love his job?), but they all do it out of love. It is a love that is so powerful that it beats the alternatives (such as spending time with your kids, or with your sex partner).
Appendix: I pass the week-end test. Mostly. For the last few years, I have stopped checking emails on week-ends. But I fail the retirement and lottery tests.