Nine to Five to Nine to Nine

Towards the end of an undergraduate engineering program, the graduating class forms two distinct groups. A handful of students choose to continue their formal education in grad school, while the majority turn to industry in order to cash in on their degrees. I fell into the latter category, but today I find myself back in the classroom. While I’m not alone in having gone back to school, it’s not a standard career trajectory and the transition elucidated several misconceptions that I previously held. Money isn’t always the bottom line, and the real world really is a bit like the office. One of the more interesting questions that I now feel better equipped to answer, however, is that of time. Who has more of it, students or employees?

While working, I had a standard 40-50 hour week. Of course, working hours vary dramatically between jobs, but I think mine was a fairly good representation of the average schedule. Hours weren’t mandated, but I typically arrived at eight in the morning and left around five-thirty, with an hour for lunch. Some people turned up at nine, some at nine thirty, though none later than ten despite the lack of an enforced policy. Working from home was also quite common. I was called upon over several weekends, but never for more than a few hours. Evenings were rarely compromised, and my overall workload was not nearly as overbearing as my graduating class had feared. I had more time on my hands than ever before.

I then went back to school. The first two weeks were great in that I only had a couple hours worth of obligations per day and could largely do as I pleased. Then the homework started. In my two years of coffee-fueled nine-to-fivedom, I had completely forgotten how detrimental homework can be to nights and weekends. Initially, I pledged to maintain my work schedule and complete everything by mid-evening. Fluid mechanics disagreed, and a few consecutive late nights plunged my staunchly ingrained routine into disarray. Over the ensuing six months I’ve been slowly drifting back toward a structured workday, but the stark contrast between work life and student life remains clear.

Surprisingly, school requires far more responsibility than the office. I have lectures and meetings scattered throughout the week, interspersed with numerous deadlines. While I have a lab to ground myself in, the required appearances all around campus make it difficult to devote significant blocks of time to a single task, resulting in many late night homework submissions. While I often feel like I now devote my life toward work rather than my distant 50 hour work week, I suspect that I probably work a similar number of hours overall. Between lectures, meetings, and homework, my new hours are just more sparsely distributed.

Recently I’ve succeeded in blending my life back into the mix by making use of open hours during the day to go to the gym, run errands, or go out for lunch. As I’m recovering some of the luxuries from my brief life as a yuppie, I’m also beginning to recognize that there was something very draining about a standardized routine. While it necessitates discipline, the sparse work schedule makes every day feel unique. I’m not sure which arrangement maximizes productivity, and I would imagine that preferences differ strongly between individuals. Personally, I’m curious to see how things change once I move on to research life.