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How many hours does it take?

Posted by Arjendu on May 16, 2008

I had a recent conversation with Christopher, who is from the part of campus that figures out where the money is for academics to use, and helps us get it. We were talking about a bunch of things, and in the middle of all this came up the notion of trying to figure out the number of hours it takes to ‘produce’ results in my line of work, whether student hours, or my own hours.  That is, if we insist on being all corporate, what’s your guess for the billable hours for a research ‘product’?

I threw out a ballpark guess of about 1000 hours to ‘results’ and probably another couple of hundred to manuscript. (See, that works out to about 4 months of focused non-stop work on one project for the results and a few more weeks on the manuscript. There have been stages in my life where that kind of work yielded absolutely nothing, and others where I got a bunch of papers out suddenly, so I am seriously smoothing the fluctuations, but that does seem in the right ballpark).

So let’s say 1000 hours of my work. How about student work, say on a project supervised by me, but where I am not doing any of the ‘calculations’? What’s the multiplier? 2, 3, 4 ? Hard to tell. Summer research is about 400 hours worth of pay to students. I ask all of them to spend time with me before the summer and say that I expect them to return after the summer because that increases the chances that we’ll actually finish the project. Painful experience tells me that this is still too little — I would barely get 500 or so student work hours out of that arrangement, so I have to put the rest of the time in myself, or else distribute the project over multiple students and multiple years.

Looking back on my recent papers, including those with students, I would say I have the order of magnitude about right.

So. What’s the point?

Well, sigh. I guess this blog post is basically a reminder to self to be patient. Results take time. Papers take time. Publishing takes time. Referees are guaranteed to raise objections you thought you’d cleverly anticipated and responded to in the very first paragraph of your paper. Two steps forward and one step back is standard operating procedure. Getting stuck just as you thought you were done is typical. And not to reiterate the obvious, but the way to keep going is not because of the results but because you enjoy the process itself (well, most of it :-)).

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