Having tried to do scientific research at several different places, I have observed the following, which has been confirmed by several colleagues:
No matter where you are, it is almost impossible to spend more than 20% of your time doing research.
Moderating this claim:
- First of all, let me define what I mean by research. I essentially mean exploratory intellectual activity. So in a way, I am not restricting myself to scientific research, and I possibly include other activities such as brainstorming about the strategy of a company for example. But, for the rest of the discussion, let us focus on scientific research.
- Secondly, I shall add that the above claim is only valid provided you care about having a balanced life. Many people manage to do more research but they then have to sacrifice something (e.g., family life, material conditions...). Finding a good balance is a complex optimization problem with many local minima (and probably a multi-objective one).
- Thirdly, this is of course an average value and you can find people who manage to do more than 20% or people who cannot do more than 10%. But the point is that the distribution is very short-tailed: it is easy to reach 20%, hard to reach 30% and almost impossible to reach 40%...
Justification of the claim:
To make the above claim a bit more clear, let me give some examples of activities one has to carry out in the remaining 80%:
Being a professor, you have to prepare classes, teach these classes, organize exams, grade the students, deal with scheduling, deal with various administrative duties, take care of PhD students...
Being a research scientist in academia, you possibly have to review papers, organize conferences, file grant applications, deal with administrative duties, prepare lectures...
Being a research scientist in a private company, you have to spend a lot of time working on improving existing systems or developing new ones, but the point is that you have to instantiate your research ideas into something that has impact on the company.
Of course, I am not complaining about all these extra duties, but I am just trying to give an objective description of what these positions require (sometimes implicitely). The subtle point is that often these extra duties are not fully mandatory (e.g., one could live without reviewing papers) but performing them is often a necessary condition for obtaining certain types of rewards (recognition by peers, being in good terms with colleagues, promotions...)
So, admitting that reader is now partially convinced about the truth of the above claim, I shall derive the following consequence about how to choose a job:
Instead of choosing a job based on the amount of time that you will be allowed to spend on research, rather choose it based on what exactly the 80% other activities are.
Indeed, you should rather pick a job whose 80% activities you find enjoyable (unless you really can stand doing things you do not like for the sake of the remaining 20%).