The week-end freedom test

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.

17 thoughts on “The week-end freedom test”

  1. Here’s a possible test of freedom. If you decided you’d like to double your income, it is even conceivable that you could do it? Similarly, if you decided you have enough money for now, could you choose to stop earning money for a month or two?

  2. Well it’s not really a freedom test if you don’t check who is _forced_ to work on week-end. Because it could (and in my experience it is) that researcher working on week end just have no life outside work.

  3. Interesting. When I started reading the post, I assumed you had the test the other way around: you failed the weekend test if you did not work on weekends. Because if you did not work on weekends you did not consider your job very interesting, and so you did not keep on working in your free time. Someone who does not work on weekends would consider their job to be “just a job”, and not a vocation that they would do even if they didn’t have to.

    But this version (the “reverse weekend test”) would need to be qualified so that it only applies to weekends when you have nothing urgent to finish. Would you still work on weekends if your inbox was empty?

    I sometimes do, and it’s some of my most rewarding and meaningful moments.

  4. Well, according to many of my friends who work outside of academia (it’s true, I know such people 🙂 work is something you do when you’re at work. When you go home from work, you just don’t work anymore. They would just not consider working in the weekends, because why would you do that?

    Whereas I apparently like my job enough to work in the weekends. However, I also commit to far too many things. Which is another reason I work in the weekends. Disentangling these two reasons is sometimes complicated.

  5. Yes, the pressure is high, but the pressure is not really from my employer (who has little clue about what I do) as much as from myself. I apparently choose to use my freedom to put a lot of pressure on myself…

  6. @Julian

    So this high pressure comes from you. It has no external cause? It is unrelated to your ranking in promotion cases, grant applications and so on? It is unrelated with the pressure to score a paper in a competitive venue next year?

    It is quite a coincidence then, don’t you think… that almost all computer science professors I know work on week-ends…?

  7. Daniel,

    Very interesting post. If you decide to retire from academia you might consider making a living as a blogger.. or a cartoonist. I heard it pays well 😉

    Jokes aside, when I started reading your post I thought too that you’re “free” if you choose to work on weekends or in your free time, because you like what you do so much that you don’t need to be told to do it.

    Nevertheless, you have a point – so I’ll reply with an insight I’ve read just a few days ago, which I’ll paraphrase here:

    You are truly free when you can do *exactly* what you want. This includes not being a victim of your own weaknesses. For example in your case could you *not* check e-mail during weekends? Would it be really a choice, or are you just used to do it and look for the immediate, random reward of “something to do”? If you can actually chose when to work – and do it – then I think you are truly free. You might work on weekends, if you actually want to, because you enjoy it; or dedicate time to your family.

    The rest of the entry from which I pulled the concept above is here: …please forgive the self-help style, the guy is actually making a living out of his blog and video.

    Personally I’ve worked in academia and recently moved to industry, and my work schedule changed dramatically – from “always working” (in academia) to “only working 9-5 because nobody else is working nights and weekends, so there’s nobody to interact with anyways”. Which led me to thinking that it is a “tragedy of the commons” problem, i.e. if there is a critical mass of people working on weekends then you feel guilty if you don’t do so.

    On a side thought, if I were a network administrator for a university mailserver I’ll try to turn off e-mail delivery during the weekend, and send out all mail on Monday morning… for a fee, of course.

    How are your drawing skills anyways?

  8. @Lorenzo

    you’re “free” if you choose to work on weekends or in your free time, because you like what you do so much that you don’t need to be told to do it

    I “work” on week-ends in the sense that I will hack my favorite open source projects. Stuff like that.

    But professors often work on their next grant application on week-ends, for example. Do they genuinely love doing it?

    Or is the love a rationalization?

  9. But professors often work on their next grant application on week-ends, for example. Do they genuinely love doing it?

    Or is the love a rationalization?

    The professors you know say they love working on grants??? That’s very weird. I thought grant writing is something you do a couple of weeks per year to buy your freedom.

  10. My test is whether I dream of the work outside the hours I am paid to think about it. Can be good, can be bad. Avoiding obsession is a good goal for many people

  11. If I won the lottery, would I keep my present job? Probably not. Maybe.

    Would I keep working on the present problem, in some form? Probably.

    Got handed a problem a few months back. Turned out to be a rather nice puzzle. How do you do proper at-scale backup of applications hosted in the cloud – specifically OpenStack? Backup is critical, but not glamorous, simple in principle, but at massive scale – there are subtle bits.

    Turns out pretty much everyone had got it wrong. Really badly wrong.

    So, iterating from design to working solution. Know exactly where to go.

    Once I have started on a decent puzzle, much prefer to work through to a solution.

    Yes, I do check emails on the weekend. Sometimes, when I expect something of interest. Otherwise not.

    Might stick with the problem, but change my approach. Prick a billion dollar balloon, maybe?

    BTW, in my father’s case, he retired three times. He took an early retirement package when his company was downsizing. Then they hired him back when a bunch of projects fell behind (chips with designs that did not work when fabbed). He retired again … and got asked back again. The third time took.

  12. I know no one — neither in academia nor in industry — who wants to pass the weekend test and works five days a week. The academics who put their private life first work two days max and spent the rest at home. In industry you have forced attendance and a boss who checks it, so the coping mechanism is different. You simply avoid assignments and doing any work. If you read Dilbert, they are Wallys. In my experience about 80% of the staff above 40 in an IT company are Wallys. In any case the choice to work or not work is entirely yours and there is no need to force it on others. I also think that the focus on work life is a cultural phenomenon of Northern America.

  13. @Julian

    Your blog post is excellent and it matches my experience.

    If you read it over, I am sure you will agree that the freedom you have (to do your own self-directed research) is something you have to earn through hard work.

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