Transatlantic Thoughts: Homework overload creates workaholics, isn’t sustainable

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Isabelle Vincent/ Credit: Isabelle Vincent/
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Editor’s note: Transatlantic Thoughts is a weekly column that examines Carnegie Mellon’s student life from a foreigner’s perspective. Find previous installments

I would like to start by a disclaimer: I am enjoying my Masters program at Carnegie Mellon and am very happy to learn here with the best professors in well-taught classes. I never found a stronger enthusiasm for academic excellence than I did here, and it's the pride of Carnegie Mellon. However, I want to expose in this installment the downsides of this double-edged obsession with hard work. I could also write a praise article but that would not be constructive and help Carnegie Mellon bring a little more balance to the life of its students.

That being said, let us deal with this week's topic, the most spread disease on campus: workaholism. You may find that pulling all-nighters and having a hard time before finals is the common lot for students; and to some extent it is true. But the intensity and duration of these four to five week periods riddled with assignment deadlines and exams baffled me. I have seen people stay 48 hours confined in one room trying to get an assignment done and desperate students falling into depression after burn-outs.

Some may say that it is the price to pay when you're aiming for excellence. To those I would say that I consider it more like a form of psychological torture, but not because of the reasons that I've exposed above. The real reason of the burn-outs and the harmful behavior that is developed by students is more complex, and this is what this article will try to convey.

As a grad student, I was prepared when coming here to deal with a significant amount of work, but I had a clear goal in mind: use my Masters as a platform to get access to companies I wouldn't have had the possibility to get into with my French-only educational pathway. I was sure of my academic interests and had no hesitations when choosing my courses to develop my knowledge in a specific area. I know why I came here and I knew what I wanted to do after leaving Carnegie Mellon. But making one's mind about one's goals in life takes time and reflection: the periods of my life where all this reflection took place were exclusively periods where I had more free time do to it, both on campus during my undergrad or during internships.

Giving meaning to your work and thinking about your goals in life, both professionally and personally, is in my opinion one of the most important things to learn during college. College is the place where you can experiment, fail, and discover your passions in an environment that is more tolerant to bad decisions than professional life. When I arrived to Carnegie Mellon, I quickly noticed that something was wrong with this. It took me some time to put the pieces together, but I think I can try to describe the mental process that can lead a freshman to become a workaholic in four years at Carnegie Mellon. The following story is purely fictional but I fear it may concern some students at Carnegie Mellon.

As a freshman, you arrive in Pittsburgh with high hopes and big projects. You're young and you don't really know what to do with your life, so you take a lot of introductory courses. That is where the downfall starts: quickly you realize that even introductory courses necessitate that you invest 110 percent of your time to complete their assignments. But the competitive environment with emulation and rewards gives you satisfaction from hard work, and you're happy to finish your first semester with a decent GPA. Nevertheless, you have to drop your second club because you don't have time to invest in it anymore.

During your sophomore and junior years, your greatest pleasure is seeing the autograder return a 100 percent score. Assignments get harder and harder, the teaching assistants become your friends and you really try hard to get that extra credit to compensate for this moment of weakness where you only had 65 percent. Professors are happy about your results, and you wish you were on the Dean's list. Companies are interested in you, so you attend their events, go to the TOC, and apply for generic internship positions that seem tailored for you. During your internship, you're paid by the hour so you work a lot to earn as much as possible to pay for tuition. During the weekends, you frantically visit the new region you relocated to or you simply study for a summer course.

Then comes the senior year, where the courses are hardest; but they have cool end-of-semesters projects that would be a great addition for your resume so you work even harder to complete them. You and your friends are holding all-nighter contests and you have fun spending so much time with your working buddies. Still attending a club at that point seems to be a waste of time because graduation is coming and you really have to land that well-paid job. Fortunately, the company you interned in makes a return offer to you, and you accept to relocate to their shiny campus where so many smart alumni work.

When you graduate, you're happy: you now have a full-time job with a six-figures income in a prestigious company, and you're ready to prove your colleagues that you deserve your position. Isn't it natural to work 70 hours a week when you really have to push this new feature to the client? When you're finished you and your team will have a great party, and after one day of sleeping you will be ready for new adventures.

If you reached that stage, congratulations: you are a workaholic. Your only concern in life is work and professional success. You are the perfect junior employee, and will have a bustling career start. Until you do your first burn-out. Or depression. Because work-life balance is something you learn, and searching desperately for a hobby to fill your weekends at age 25 is not going to help it in a sustainable way. Even ignoring the human consequences of workaholism, training batches of new grads with this harmful behavior is bad for the economy: you can only sustain a few years of self-inflicted work overload before you develop mental disorders, leading to brilliant minds losing productivity.

That is why it is very important to give undergrads some free time during their four years to think about themselves and the meaning of their work. And by that I don't mean organizing a contest to allocate money to projects that "increase the free time value for student," but rather letting the students organize themselves. How to achieve that? Simply by reducing the workload of the first years of undergrad: fewer courses, fewer assignments. And you will see that with true free time, people will find on their own a way to take full opportunity of what Carnegie Mellon can offer them.

I am sorry for the bleak tone of this article, which is meant to provoke by exaggerating traits and behaviors. To those who unfortunately identified with the portrait I've drawn, I hope that I triggered an occasion for some soul-searching: the sooner you realize you're on the workaholic track, the better you can prevent it from happening.