Do you love Science? Well, that depends, do you like sleep?

Dec 15 2011 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

In the wrapup of the recent Nobel ceremonies (always much less feted than the actual announcement of the winners, but there you go), there was a panel, talking to young scientists, from Nobel Prize winners, about what it takes to succeed (or at least to end up as a Nobel Prize winner).

A write up at Scientific American on the panel is here. I have to say I was...kind of dismayed. What caused my dismay is what the Nobel Laureates had to say about being successful in science. Some choice quotes below the fold, but my general impression made award winning science look like this:

Smithies also offered some more relaxed rules for his Saturday mornings. “I would do experiments where I didn’t have to weigh anything. I would use a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” he said to appreciative chuckles. Some of those more casual Saturday experiments proved the most important over his career.

Don't worry, I relax on Saturdays! That's when I run my unofficial experiments!

A particular challenge for experimental scientists is the need to keep their research chugging along without consuming entire weekends. “Maybe pick two hours each day on Saturday and Sunday” to balance the needs of science and home life.

You won't miss their childhood at all! Two hours each day on the weekends is plenty!

“The day of my wedding, I was in the lab,” Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (2008 Physiology or Medicine) said to a loud burst of applause. “I received a phone call from the man who would become my husband at 11:30 in the morning. He said, ‘Do you think you will come?’ I said, ‘Oh my God, of course! I’ll be there in a half hour.” Barre-Sinoussi added that it’s difficult to make blanket statements about partner or whether to have children—choices are very personal.

Ok, well at least the choice is personal (and who knows, maybe she was eloping and just needed to run over to the courthouse. Many people don't really go in for huge weddings, and that's totally ok).

I wasn't the only one who found this a little off putting. A discussion ensued on Twitter, and I'm going to take the liberty of embedding the storify Dr. Skyskull put together on it.

View the story "Science versus life?" on Storify]

I'd like to elaborate on a few of my thoughts here, where I have more than 140 characters (not to mention a little more coffee than yesterday). First off, I know that this is not specific to science. It's not specific to academia, or medicine, or jobs that require higher degrees. There is a culture in the US that hard work and more effort is just...BETTER. That working more hours, volunteering to do more, producing more, makes you better at your job and a "better" person (whatever that means). Whether or not it gets you anything material. Puritanical roots, maybe, human nature, maybe some of that too. So I'm not saying this is a problem specific to science, because it's not, but I can only speak for science because this is the only place where I have experience.

Here's the thing. Science and academia, they are really demanding. I'm not going to deny that. But what gets me is the glorification of that demanding lifestyle. The idea that you should LOVE science more than anything else, that in order to be "worthy" to do science, to be 'cut out' to do science, you need to work harder than everyone around you. You need to PROVE how much you love science, and you need to prove it by working longer hours than everyone else. I think some people really do have the passion to do this naturally (perhaps the Nobel Prize winners are among them), but I think most of us don't. Rather, we work those long hours, looking over our shoulders the whole time because we know that other grad students or post-docs are working even longer.

Academic science has become a competition. This is partly, I think, due to the low number of academic jobs available. With hundreds of applicants for every position, unis can afford to be VERY picky. To demand a Nature paper, or more than one, a K award or other funding, piles of first and second author papers. And it's hard to do all that in 40 hours a week. If you want to be competitive, you have to do more. Or you don't have an academic job. And even in an age where 90% of PhDs will NOT have a research job, not having an academic job is still considered failure.

And this competitiveness is fostered in grad students, practically from the womb. It's a competition to get into grad school, you'd better have the best grades AND some hot undergrad research AND some sick GRE scores. If you didn't go to a uni with a med school offering undergrad research opportunities? Well you should have thought of THAT when you were 17! If you didn't develop a passion for science until halfway through college? Well CLEARLY you don't have enough passion, or you would have had it when you were 2. If you didn't get in to a good undergrad because maybe your high school grades weren't so fantastic? Well if you'd been MOTIVATED you would have done BETTER. Obviously you don't care about science enough.

When you do get to grad school, competitiveness and devotion to science is fostered even more. And with that, comes the long hours. If you want to succeed, well you need to be a "good" grad student, and "good" grad students put in 8-10 hours in the lab per day in addition to classes and studying (that includes weekends). And of course you want to be a good grad student. You want to succeed, don't you? You want to show how passionate you are about science, don't you?

These long hours may not be explicitly endorsed by the professor you work for, but they always praise the work you get done. They are eager to praise how MUCH you get done, how DEDICATED you are. PIs want people in their labs who are productive (because they are also under pressure to produce as much as possible), so of course they're going to pick the ones willing to work the hours to become that way. You hear your fellow grad students wailing about how they are SO TIRED because they were in the lab til 4am! This wailing and the subsequent coffee addiction is actually kind of competitive. Look at me, I was here all night. Aren't I dedicated. Aren't I a better scientist than you.

The whole thing ends up implicitly promoting a St. Kern style of science (for those who may not remember dear St. Kern, here are a few of the many great pieces on that story).

And this view of science, where you have to prove your dedication and show how devoted your are by working insane hours and missing the lives of your children, was implicitly promoted, not only by the Nobel Laureates, but by the young scientists watching them. The "relaxed" Saturday mornings in the lab were met with chuckles, the day of the wedding in the laboratory was met with spontaneous applause. As Krystal pointed out in the storify, not only does this continue to make people who see it feel not good enough (I know the first thing I felt was guilt, I was not in the lab this past Saturday morning), it paints a strict view of science. Not a strict view in that you need to work hard. No, this view is that you need to work HARDEST. Success in science means you have to work more than anyone else. Yes, in theory it doesn't mean that, in theory it means you work SMARTER than everyone else, you ask the right questions, you get lucky, and you're prepared, and you pursue the right kind of inquiry. But the reality is that, in pursuit of working smarter, in pursuit of all the wrong questions before the right one, and in trying to prepare for that stroke of luck, well it means you work harder. You work like the dogs are after you, knowing other people are applying for that grant, submitting a similar paper, applying for that job, and knowing that you'll never make it unless you work harder than they do. At some point, for many scientists I know, the long hours, and more long hours, turn the long hours of passion...into long hours of desperation.

And I worry that this strict view will turn people away. We spend a lot of time trying to convince kids that science is cool. Do we also need to convince them that 100 hour weeks are cool too? I wonder how many people, particularly women, are turned away from science because we just CAN'T put in the long hours which are demanded of us along with things like childbirth (because the reality is that the physical demands of childbirth put more pressure on women than men, though I in no way mean to discount the role that many men have in childrearing). Might as well get out now if you know you're not going to succeed. If we want anything like parity between men and women in science, this attitude is going to need to change.

And there's another aspect to this. These constant long hours may not be good for scientific inquiry. A life in science is a marathon, not a sprint. Constant long hours of sprinting wear you down, and alienate you from friends and support circles outside of science (friends outside of science! Shocking!). Those long hours are depressing, they are stressful, and they definitely don't allow you to work your best. Sure, sometimes the experiment requires an all nighter, and sometimes the experiments run long. But if we're running long and all night all the time...there will come a time when even the toughest will collapse. And then there's the simple fact that long hours make most people less careful. More mistakes, and then even more time in the lab making them up. We might work harder, we might prove how much we love science, we might prove we're dedicated. But at what cost? Must we all PAY that cost to do science?

And then there's the final worry. Pressure and passion can become desperation when your job is on the line. Constant long hours in the lab don't always yield productive results, because science doesn't always respond to just working harder. Does this sense of needing to work the hardest, of needing to be the BEST, lead to some of the misconduct that happens? I wouldn't be surprised.

It's ok NOT to do award winning science. Science can be PLENTY good when it doesn't win a Nobel Prize. And this should be obvious, because the vast majority of scientists aren't going to win one. But until we accept that scientists can be successful in 40-60 hours a week, and what that success looks like, there's going to be a lot of us who aren't "cut out" for science. And that's not just bad for scientists, it's bad for science itself, losing creative, diverse, and potentially brilliant minds in favor of long hours and self-martyrdom. I love science, but I'm not sure I love it that much.

(For another view on this, go check out the great post by Katie PhD, which has great points about communicating science. How can you communicate science if you're so mired in the lab you don't know how to talk to your bartender?)

53 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    I pretty much realized this during my first post-doc. Today I work a strict 10 hours per day, five days per week (the occasional trip or deadline-panic aside). If you really believe in "work-life balance" then 50 hours a week is about half your available time, with as much left for your friends, hobbies and family.

    Do I get as much done as I would with a longer schedule? Almost. My efficiency drops a lot if I work longer than this for long periods. Do I suffer, career-wise, from not being at the office late at night or weekends? Probably. Do I care? No, not any longer. As much as I love science, I love my family more.

    And when things happen, and you realize you will not always be together with those you love, it is a very, very easy decision to let your career go in order to spend time with those who really matter while you still can.

  • O.R. Pagan says:

    Very interesting. I actually understand many of the points you made, but there are some exceptions. For example, there are many cases of non-traditional students who start in the game later in life but nonetheless have gone on to become very accomplished scientists. I talked a little bit about this in my latest blog entry, if you are interested...

    Nice job!

  • KatiePhD says:

    Really great post Sci! Especially agreed with this part:

    "At some point, for many scientists I know, the long hours, and more long hours, turn the long hours of passion...into long hours of desperation."

    and how that desperation may well be to blame for certain cases of scientific misconduct. One of the badly made videos they played for us in ethics training was about just that; a PI pressuring his students to the point where they fabricated the data to make it look how he/she wanted it to.

    @Janne I totally understand what you mean about efficiency. A couple of years ago I began really carefully planning my days so that I could get everything done between 8 and 6, barring any crazy emergency, experiment, or deadline. I'm way more productive and well rested now, and even get to have some fun on the weekends 🙂

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    This is a great post. You did a wonderful job of covering all the points that I would have brought up.

    I remember when I selected a lab in grad school I had a conversation with my potential boss. I flat out told him that I was willing to get the work done but wasn't willing to have a mental breakdown in the process. If he was clear about what his expectations were, those expectations would be met by well thought out and time managed experiments within the confines of the weekdays. In the end I can count on one hand the number of times I went in on a weekend, with the exception of my quals and dissertation I never took my work home, and I don't have enough fingers to count the pubs (mostly first author) that I put out in the 3 1/2 years it took me to complete my PhD in his lab. My average lab time was ~55 hours a week.

    Everything I've seen indicates that long hours make for a shotgun approach to science where you keep throwing crap experiments at a problem until you get lucky. If you need to go pick up your kid from daycare or in my case walk your dog you are going to think through and prepare ahead of time all the components of your experiment so you don't blow the time you've set aside for them. If you want a life you must be a science sniper.

    Admittedly I'm not a super competitive person. I recently got scooped by back to back Nature papers. My postdoc PI watched me like a hawk for a few weeks waiting for a breakdown that didn't happen. In my mind they got to it first and good on them. I'm sure that even had I worked 100+ hours a week I wouldn't have been able to pull together the story as completely or in time so there is no point in sweating it. I am never going to win a Nobel prize. I'm not really interested in one. I also would prefer not to kill myself for the possibility of having the scientific equivalent of a "first" comment on Failblog. I don't think that I am less of a scientist for feeling that way.

    I'm sorry for the length of this comment but blanket statements like these really piss me off.

    • KateClancy says:

      Brilliant comment. Especially this:

      "Everything I've seen indicates that long hours make for a shotgun approach to science where you keep throwing crap experiments at a problem until you get lucky."

      Sometimes I like to spend inordinate amounts of time playing with my data. And sometimes playing around enough leads to discovering interesting things I wouldn't have found if I had just gone in with a plan. But that is the exception, not the rule. I create several layers of plans: plans for what I will achieve in a semester, in a project, in a week and in a day. That doesn't mean the plan gets followed all the time. But having the plan makes me efficient, and so my work can get done in 50 hours a week most of the time (this semester has been an exception because I have been trying to get extra stuff published leading to my third year review). And then I can actually see my husband and my kid, and go hit women at roller derby practice. And without those things I wouldn't really see the point of my job anyway.

      • Crystal Voodoo says:

        I have to confess I don't consider playing with data to be the same as doing experiments. Playing with data can easily be done during wait steps and has the benefit of being easily paused to go stain a gel or change a buffer. It is a more industrious replacement for checking your facebook or looking at lolcats in my opinion. My field is computationally heavy and the final product is largely subjective so I will easily spend weeks or months fussing until I feel I have the best interpretation of my data.

        I was referring more to the "how can I design this experiment to give me clear interpretable results so that I have an answer or at least eliminate an aspect that is muddying that answer?" Things like incorporating the appropriate controls and troubleshooting in a clear direction.

  • KDCosta says:

    "You work like the dogs are after you, knowing other people are applying for that grant, submitting a similar paper, applying for that job, and knowing that you'll never make it unless you work harder than they do. At some point, for many scientists I know, the long hours, and more long hours, turn the long hours of passion...into long hours of desperation."

    So true of other fields as well. Beautifully articulated, Sci. At some point, that desperation leads to burnout, and burnout means you aren't doing anything that you like (or love--hello, Science) well. It is a bitter, frustrating cycle.

    Thanks for sharing this, Sci.

  • Emmers says:

    St. Kern reminds me a bit of my great-uncle -- when I was all of 8 or 10, I said I wanted to be an astronaut, and he said "But you're so smart. If you went into medicine, you would probably be the one to cure cancer. How can you DO THAT to the world -- deprive them of your genius? Think of all the people who will die because of your selfish attitude about your career!"

    Now I am pretty sure he was joking, but at the time, I had no sarcasm-o-meter.

  • Suw says:

    Hi, found this post via Twitter and, whilst I am not a scientist, I recognise everything you've said from my experiences in tech and the media. And it doesn't work out well there, either.

    In the past I did a fair amount of thinking about these problems as I could see them damaging my clients, and came to the conclusion that a lot of the root cause is an inability to truly measure productivity in knowledge-based jobs. Because we can't count spanner production or what have you, we count things like hours at desk/bench or hours in meetings or amount of email received or amount of travel done. These are proxies for productivity and, as pointed out above, any number than can be counted can be made to go up.

    Anyway, if it's not too cheeky of me to leave these links here, I wrote about this a bit in 2008 and you might recognise some of the points I raise:

    Thank you for a really interesting post, though. It really resonated!

    • Marcus says:

      This is a good point. The more hours are better corolary follows from the more pubs are better assunption. Why are more pubs better? Because how else do you manage figure out who is a great scientist? Or at least a really productive one. It is a tempting short cut in assesing quality.

  • If you want a life you must be a science sniper

    Sounds SO much cooler when you say it like that!

    I already decided that I have one day a week that Science may not have (barring emergencies). It was finals this week; I still went for a bike ride and ice cream with Mr owl on Sunday.

  • Blurr says:

    Is it that successful scientists are successful because they put in a LOT of hours, or that they're successful because they're obsessed and love what they do and long hours are a happy bi-product of doing what you love?

    I know that when I'm doing something that I love, I forget what time it is, what day it is, how long I've been working, when my birthday is. It's like I get tunnel vision for my task and I like it because I'm in love with what I'm doing, nothing else matters. The rest of the world melts away.

    How can anyone feel dismay at that? It's beautiful and it's a sign that you're in the right field. If you feel that you "need" to put in the super long hours in order to keep up, don't you think you should be doing something different?

    • scicurious says:

      I think that many people in science are very passionate about what they do, but I don't think that the glorification of long hours is a good thing. After all, I am passionate about what I do (I DO write a science blog in my offtime, clearly I'm not in this for the money, coke, and hookers), but I do not want, and CANNOT, work the kind of hours that some of the people in my department feel are necessary for success. But right now, people in science are judged because they do not put in "enough" hours (60 hours weeks are not "enough"), and their success and ability to get a job is impacted because of it. Should these people be forced out of science because they have other necessary draws on their time (children and elder care are good examples, let alone your own mental health) which makes them unable to work 80+ hour weeks?

      • A.anon says:

        Actually I loved the article, and I thought it was very inspiring. And you know what, it is true that people are judged in science for not putting in long hours. But women are also judged even more in our society for putting in time at work, and not enough time into their kids and husbands and whatever, and I found it very inspiring that a very senior woman like Francoise Barre-Sinoussi could say things like that about her wedding day, and it was all socially acceptable and people even clapped at that!

    • Emmers says:

      I can feel dismay at that if it means you never see your children.

      If you're childfree and single, great! Work on. But the vast majority of people in the world do not fit that type, and as such the vast majority of the workforce is not going to fit that type either.

      Your kids deserve a mom or a dad, and your spouse deserves a spouse. If you can't give that to them, don't you think you should be doing something different?

    • A.anon says:

      Yes! Exactly! This!!!!!

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Blurr: That you get into flow like that is great for you.

    But not everyone gets into that much flow. And that they don't get into that headspace doing science does not mean that they have nothing to contribute, or that their contributions are lesser for it.

    • Blurr says:

      @ Zen Faulkes - I wasn't suggesting that they have nothing to contribute or that their contributions are lesser for it. I'm sure that they will. I was making a blanket observation about passion that people have for what they are doing.

      Isn't passion what it's all about? Again, is it that to be most successful in science, 80 hour weeks are required, or is it that the most successful in science are so passionate about what they do, 80 hour weeks are effortless?

      • scicurious says:

        I think I agree that passion is great and that passion is what it's about, but I don't think we should glorify the HOURS that the truly passionate work, and expect everyone else to do the same.

        There are lots of good scientists out there who can't, or don't want work those hours (myself included), but that doesn't mean they are WORSE scientists than those who sleep in the lab. If we continue to equate quality with quantity of hours, we're going to drive people away, and while the passionate may still produce wonderful science, the pursuit of cures and understanding and increased quality of life requires more people than the passionate few.

        • Blurr says:

          I totally agree. The hours certainly should not be glorified, nor should the people who are entirely obsessed be glorified either.

          I imagine that because the number seems impressive because it seems superhuman and because its correlated with regular success, in some peoples minds the correlation is seen as causal. Working 80+ hours a week isn't going to make you successful, total dedication to what you're doing will; the hours are just a bi-product.

          • Crystal Voodoo says:

            I see what you are trying to say here and can appreciate the point that you're making. However I would contend that, while I am totally dedicated to my science, the quality of my research and my physical and mental well-being pivot on obtaining a reasonable amount of restful sleep. Sleep that can't be achieved if I am wound up thinking about nothing but my research. This requires time to decompress. It seems to me that this type of total dedication is an indicator of someone with unhealthy boundaries. While on rare occasions this might result in ground-breaking research it is more likely to be a precursor to instability and perpetual malaise. This isn't a behavior that I would encourage in anyone of any profession, least of all those people who are supposed to be defining paradigms and developing cures.

  • I feel you strongly on this one. During my graduate career, my mentor told me that the really best and highest level scientists worked 80+ hour weeks. I tried it for a while. My health /suffered/ considerably. I was not happy. I was never told I wasn't cut out for science (because my passion was there regardless of how many hours I worked, but there was some definite disappointment in his voice at times. I think it's sad that theres an equation between high stress, long hour environments and success, because if a person isn't happy then whats the point? Also, this "not cut out for science" attitude is snobbish and rude, and when it's said and done those sorts of people will be unhappy and friendless. I think they say those things precisely to hide their secret envy of people who openly enjoy their time with friends, family, and "extracuricular" activities, and don't let their job define their lives.

  • Namnezia says:

    Meh. I've never really worked on weekends or spent super long hours and it's worked fine for me. You just have to learn to be efficient. Most folks in labs I've worked at have had the same attitude.

  • Terra says:

    It also happens in the field of teaching. I have an MA in US history and I'm now a middle school teacher. There's an idea that if you don't work 12 hour days 6 days a week you are a failure as a teacher, and frankly that's about the amount of time you have to put in if you don't have your curriculum written yet. There's so much pressure not to be a "bad teacher" that I and all my colleagues end up either feeling bad for taking the occasional day off or we work far too much. I worked 12.5 hours today. Two days ago, on my birthday, I worked 10 hours - and that's because I put in extra work the two days before so I could take an hour or two off in the evening.

    The US work ethic needs help. None of us can be good at our jobs if we're exhausted. And in my case, all the joy of studying history just isn't there any more because I no longer have any time for research. Research would make me a better teacher and a happier person, but ...

  • Bryan says:

    Great article, but I can't agree with you near the end. From what I comprehend, you are trying to teach that "good enough" is... well, good enough and the community should encourage mediocrity. I don't want to sound harsh but as a college student that just made a life changing decision to drop out, I look at the state of higher education and see an army of zombies being told to not follow their personal passion, but to dive into a side interest that could be exaggerated for impressing college admission offices, inquiring teachers and guidance counselors, as well as parents that demand their kid to choose a career before they're 22. These scientists that you feel should be promoting all levels of science are nobel winners because of the effort behind their work. Passion cannot be taught out of a textbook. Leaving the University of Connecticut, I have met great students involved with fine arts and music. Their passion is the motivation to succeed, not the desperation to impress or prove themselves better than anyone else.

    Science should be about the nature of discovery, not about just doing research to say "Im involved in extensuve research." to a table at a dinner party.

    If you aren't waking up in the morning looking forward to the potential each day may bring in whatever field of work, you are in the wrong industry. Unfortunately I fear many students today are driven to study majors they do not actually have a passion for studying. This faux passion created to convince ourselves that we made the right choice is what hurts any society.

    • Blurr says:

      Oh man! You freakin' said it! Especially the last part.

      "If you aren't waking up in the morning looking forward to the potential each day may bring in whatever field of work, you are in the wrong industry."

      I could not agree more with that statement. To those who haven't found that kind of feeling, hunt it down relentlessly because it's an entirely wonderful an invigorating sensation. There is absolutely nothing like waking up in the morning and feeling like you can't wait to get back to work.

      I set aside a life goal for myself when I was very young to work in the video game industry and I eventually made it. Going to work every day was a dream and the hardships that I faced served as launch pads to propel me forward. It wasn't a job for me, it was life to me and I loved every second of it. I remember being bored at home on many occasions wishing that I was at work. I ate, breathed, slept, and dreamed it. It was my everything and it was a dream come true. I worked 120+ hour weeks occasionally but I didn't do it out of mandate, I did it with the kind of drive that is rooted in an unshakable purpose. I didn't work 80+ hour weeks because I felt like I needed to be the best. I felt truly alive and 80+ hour weeks were just a result of my passion and my obsession. I was there because I wanted to be there, because I loved to be there.

      I worked 80+ hours because I lost track of time in the love of what I was doing.

      Thinking that 80+ hour weeks are the cause of success is backwards.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I think this conversation could stand to include a clear definition of what is "passionate" versus "obsessive." Can you have one without the other? In my opinion the answer is yes but I suspect that this isn't a universally held opinion and may be the source of contention.

    The statement that "if I don't spontaneously spend 80 hours in lab a week I am obviously not passionate about science" produces a rather visceral response. For me it is the equivalent of a dad telling his children "if they like Mommy's new boyfriend they don't love him anymore." As I have driven through the feeder bands of a catagory 1 hurricane to attend to an ailing mouse colony I don't feel that my dedication deserves to be questioned. If I can consistently put out quality publications and research while still making time for the people I love then I shouldn't be labeled an inferior scientist who doesn't care enough about what she does. It doesn't seem fair to assume that I should find fulfillment and enrichment in only one thing.

    Obviously I don't expect everyone to share my opinion. Other people's life experiences aren't the same as mine and they don't necessarily have the same perspective but I'm hoping that this might help gain traction amongst those who purport that the 80 hour work week is a necessary outflow of passion for your job.

  • Blurr says:

    Agreeing with Crystal Voodoo on needing a definition, here are a few definitions of both passion and obsession that I think that we can all agree with. I got them from google by using the "define" function

    An intense desire or enthusiasm for something
    - the English have a passion for gardens

    A thing arousing enthusiasm
    - modern furniture is a particular passion of Bill's

    The state of being obsessed with someone or something
    - she cared for him with a devotion bordering on obsession

    An idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's mind
    - he was in the grip of an obsession he was powerless to resist

    I believe that you can have one with out the other. It follows that you can have a passion for something but not be obsessed with it but that if you are obsessed with something, you must necessarily have passion.

    I also believe that we're focusing on the wrong thing. The topic is time spent in doing something (80+ hour weeks). We have to ask ourselves, if we spend 80+ hours a week doing something, what is the reason, why are we doing it?

    I can see at least two clear reasons why 80+ hour weeks would exist. Reason 1: Someone feels as if they need to work more in order to keep up or succeed. Reason 2: Someone loves what they do so much, with such fervor, passion, and obsession, that they lose track of time in the process of work that they end up working that many hours.

    Again, focusing on how much time someone puts in to something isn't important, what is important is WHY they put in the time they do. Is it just a job or a way of remaining stable, or is it something that you just can't put down because you love it so much?

    • Crystal Voodoo says:

      I agree with your statement regarding the motivations behind why an 80+ hour work week exists. Scientists should have passion. I won't deny that I frequently lose track of time while caught up in an experiment or writing a discussion. I enjoy keeping undergrads around specifically so I have someone to ask if we were planning on eating at some point. Even when things are going poorly in lab I still wake up wanting to go into work in the morning. Research is too cruel a mistress to support someone who just works more in order to keep up or succeed.

      My concern (and the point that I believe Sci was trying to make - please correct me if I'm wrong) is that speech of the nature presented by the Nobel laureates creates the impression that (a) a 80+ hour work week will make you successful and (b) that a really good scientist cannot let a little thing like outside responsibilities or relationships to interfere with lab time.

      A new grad student could listen to these comments and assume that this is the how a scientist should be. This could leave them open to certain abuses by their superiors or could encourage them to ignore interpersonal relationships or engage in self-destructive behaviors for "science". It could also give the impression that if they do work 80+ hours and nothing comes of it that they are an epic failure. These factors can easily kill the passion for science (it definitely would have in my case) and drive away good potentially passionate scientist who want to have families or just need balance in their life. I think the message that we should present would be something along the lines of "passion tempered" to accommodate for people who want an outside life as well as a career they are passionate about. I believe there is space in science for those people but the rhetoric is scaring them off.

  • [...] Time Genomics Comes to New York City Tool detects patterns hidden in vast data sets Do you love Science? Well, that depends, do you like sleep? 5 Lies Scientists [...]

  • Subhojit Roy says:

    I am a PI with a small (but well-funded) lab. I go around telling my students/postdocs not to come on weekends and to go home and reflect on problems rather than being in the lab all the time etc. (exactly for the reasons articulated in this post).

    Once I expounded this philosophy at a meeting in front of a couple of other PI's, and there was a deathly pause. Followed by various comments on how wrong I was, its so important to work hard etc.

    Guess what, I think our work is more creative than thiers', we publish in better places, and all my people seems happy and smile at each other (and at me).

    So far so good.

  • Bee says:

    The pressure to work is partly cultural. In my years in North America I became very used to working weekends. Then I moved to Sweden. I appeared at the institute on a Saturday exactly one, noticed that I was the only one, and went home again feeling stupid. Similarly, it is pretty much pointless to appear at your workplace in July because the whole country is on vacation.

  • Newcastle says:

    I've been working in academic labs for the past 25 years and there is a middle ground that is being ignored in this discussion. There are many aspects of research that do not operate on a 5 day work week. If your work requires animals then you damned well better be prepared to come in on the weekends to make sure that they have food and water, not every lab can afford 7 day a week animal techs. If your cells need to be split every 48 hours then you need to be there every 48 hours. It is as simple as that, some cell cultures don't care about your weekend plans and if you let them overgrow you are screwed. If your research depends on getting tissue samples from emergency surgeries and someone's aorta choses to dissect at 2AM then you need to be willing to haul your ass into the lab at that hour to process it. If your time course requires processing every four hours for a couple of days then your life will suck for a couple of days. That is life in academic biomedical research. I don't work 80-100 hour weeks, hell I rarely work a 60 hour week but there is a lot of research out there that can't be done on a Monday to Friday 9-5 schedule. For the work I do you have to be there when the work needs to be done. If the work requires that you go in for an hour on a Saturday then you suck it up and go in, get it done and go home. If you have nothing to do on a Tuesday morning then go get your shopping done. It is an erratic schedule, you can minimize that aspect with good planning but some if it simply can not be avoided. Also if you want to take a vacation then you had best be willing to cover for the other people in your lab when they would like to take a vacation. Especially if you are working in a small lab.
    Do you need to work 80 hour weeks? No you don't but if you require wide open weekends then you had best find yourself a different line of research and I strongly suggest that you avoid dairy farming.

    • scicurious says:

      I tried to mention in my post that yes, you probably won't work 9-5 (heck, I'm in the lab RIGHT NOW). The experiments often demand odd hours. And that's fine and necessary. I do not think we should just be 9-5 no weekends, science doesn't work that way. What I don't like is the GLORIFICATION of insane hours (not just coming in to separate your cells, but working all weekend every weekend and deep into the night every night whether the experiment calls for it or not), the idea that these insane hours MAKE YOU A BETTER SCIENTIST. They may sometimes be necessary, but they do not make you BETTER, and I don't like that the long hours are currently seen as being equal to passion and dedication, and seen as completely necessary for a productive career.

      • Newcastle says:

        I agree with you but I'm also stuck in the lab at the moment and I REALLY don't want to be here today but this multi-week series of experiments demands that I be here whether I want to or not. It can engender a cranky response.

        I find the brilliant PIs who clearly have raging Asperger Syndrome and no life outside of their research to be a curse upon my life. The problem is the folks with no life outside of the lab are often very successful and as a result they have the grant support and they are the ones who can afford to pay me. Unfortunately in my experience there is a highly annoying correlation between being successful in academia and being a serious asshole.

        But truth be told the whole you must work 80+ hours a week attitude was much worse 20 years ago, at least at this institution. It still occurs but it has noticeably lessened over the last decade. Unfortunately it sure as hell hasn't gone completely away.

      • Tybo says:

        Surprisingly, working in circadian biology also doesn't get you out of the glorification of the crazy hours and lack of sleep. You think of all people they would know the best...

  • [...] Excellent post from Scicurious on the glorification of ridiculous work weeks in science and why that’s unhealthy [...]

  • Zuska says:

    No, this view is that you need to work HARDEST.

    And then finally are the one with the biggest swinging dick of all time! You were in the lab before you went to your wedding? Bah! I got married in the cold room and was at the bench the day I gave birth, just spread my legs and squatted a little. Had one of my postdocs catch the little bugger before it hit the floor.
    E.g., the first 40 seconds of this

  • [...] “It’s bad for science, losing creative, diverse, potentially brilliant minds in favor of long hours & self-martyrdom” – SciCurious on the long-hours culture of science [...]

  • Jennifer says:

    Thanks Sci,

    The fact that you see how it drives people away helps my perspective in the career. Im planning on going into that field (Im currently a high school junior) and looking for any information that may prepare me or that I may prepare for; though, I am passionate about neuroscience, so thank you 🙂

  • scilicious says:

    Sci, I've been giving this some thought over the last few weeks and while I absolutely agree with you... How do you deal with the peer pressure?

    I mean, you're a post doc, right? I'm a first year PhD student (as are all other PhD student in my department, so we're a real peer group) so expectations are probably a bit different for me.

    Fact is: As long as I get my work done, neither my boss nor our lab tech nor our post docs actually care how much I work, how many hours, weekends, etc.

    Fact is also: My fellow PhD students work considerable more hours than me.

    I'm not opposed to working long hours, weekends, what have you if it's necessary or feasible or convenient or if I have a deadline. I'm scrambling this month because of a deadline, but still there's only so much I can do in a day (e.g. babysitting my cells while they're in the incubator = no sense) and I work 50-55 h in a 5 day week usually.

    And I find that a reasonable amount of time, my brain can only do so much before it starts lapsing and I start making mistakes - and I'd rather prevent that if I have a choice. I have friends, I have hobbies that I like to pursue and I like to have a routine that does not consist of get up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. I like to read, I write recreationally, I like to do things with my friends occasionally, and with some of my friends when I actually want to TALK to them, I have to juggle time zones.

    Yet my fellow PhD students are often there when I come in the morning and are still there when I go home in the evening.

    The first few weeks I simply stayed longer and longer, but honestly that sucks. I don't know what they're doing all the time (certainly not chained to their benches usually), I just know I have a real bad conscience when I go home.

    Now, my NYR is to cause MYSELF less stress, i.e. to actually not consider all the time what the others might think about my working habits, but I wonder how other people deal with it?

    (also of note: When I was doing my Master thesis - at a different institute in another town - I had the PhD student I was working for yell at me once because I went home before her...the fact that I used to come in up to three hours before her didn't seem to be a consideration.)

  • [...] know why we tell each other these lies. We tell them to each other because we want to show how dedicated we are. We want to prove that we're "cut out" to be in science, etc, [...]

  • [...] See SciCurius’ post on similar issue – Do you love Science? Well, that depends, do you like sleep? Share this:Facebook This was written by Eric. Posted on Thursday, December 15, 2011, at 5:23 pm. [...]

  • [...] “It’s bad for science, losing creative, diverse, potentially shining minds in preference of prolonged hours self-martyrdom” – SciCurious on a long-hours enlightenment of science [...]

  • [...] Physiology: Do you love Science? Well, that depends, do you like sleep? Neurotic Physiology: Friday Weird Science: Does your menstrual blood attract BEARS?! Neurotic [...]

  • [...] on blogs talk about work-life balance a lot. We talk about working "only" 60 hours a week. We talk about having a hobby. We talk about having kids. We talk a lot of [...]

  • [...] know ideas like these are not new, but they make me feel I don’t ever want to be a proper scientist. I [...]

  • seaweed says:

    Avram Hershko (Nobel 2004, ubiquitin) once said his only regret in life was that he didn't have time for his kids when they were little, and now that he is older, his kids don't have time for him. True story, I was there in person when he said that. He also advocated for researchers to find their own niche, so they won't have as much competition. That's how he started, he said, working on a then-obscure observation that nobody in his lab wanted to look at, and look where it got him.

    While it is true that some people will choose to work in the lab 80+ hours a week, I personally reject the idea that that choice should be made for the rest of us. From my own experience, it is truly counterproductive when you work too long--far easier to make mistakes late into the night. Routine PCRs and ligations never seem to work when I set them up at ungodly hours. I was most productive when I knew I had to be done by a certain time to do other things (e.g. meet friends, volunteer). In fact, after my boss asked me to spend more time in the lab, my productivity when south, not north. Because, well, if I had to stay late anyway, what was the point of organizing/scheduling my day? I think the key is to focus when you are in the lab, not to spend more time in the lab.

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  • [...] long hours to compete for the precious few post doc positions out there. I’m reminded of this excellent article by Scicurious from a couple years ago, commenting on the many problems with fostering this kind of attitude in [...]