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Humane Research is the ONLY Option!

September 5, 2011

I consider myself lucky when it comes to graduate school life. I have everything in balance, and I feel that my productivity and creativity are enhanced by this fact. I owe a large part of this to the culture of my research group, and I am thankful to my adviser and my coworkers for that.

And even so, I’m beyond mad.

I talked with a friend of mine recently about how many hours he worked per week at his institution. He replied: “My peak, my upper bound, would be no more than 90. No less than about 62, or 64.” I proceeded to rant at him about how even at 60 hours a week, that would mean 12 hour days without counting commutes or lunch, which is insanity. His response? “10 hours a day is 70 per week.” Nice quip, eh? I know he’s half-way joking about the weekends comment, but I know many other people who would say the same and not be joking.

Graduate school culture, by and large, is broken. It’s rotting from the inside out, and only getting worse.

In late August, the esteemed scientific journal Nature released an editorial titled “Reality Check,” which ostensibly compared the merits of work-life balance and extreme, life-encompassing scientific dedication. It could have been a rousing call to arms to correct the imbalances in our universities, but instead it was harsh and over-short; it could have been summed up in two words: tough luck. There may be more meat in the two accompanying articles written by opposing professors, but they each cost over $30 to read. I wish I had that kind of money, Nature. (That’s a rant for another time.) Let’s talk about the editorial itself, though.

Read through the article, and note the last line:

Anyone lacking the inner intellectual drive and a capacity for relentless focus to get to the heart of the way the world works should stay away [from research].

The inner intellectual drive and capacity for relentless focus? This author has perfected the use of euphemisms! Let’s understand what these words really mean: the willingness to endure inhumane hours and a complete lack of perspective on anything else in the world. If you think I’m being hyperbolous, let me share some stories that people have told me about their graduate school experience:

  • I have talked to students who have been driven to tears by their adviser.
  • I have talked to students whose adviser checks at 2 AM to see if they’re still in the laboratory.
  • I have talked to a student whose degree is being held hostage by his adviser unless he works “hard enough.”
  • I have talked to a student whose adviser threw his memory stick on the floor and told him to “kneel down and pick it up” because the adviser was angry with him.

This is not a case of a few bad apples. This is a systemic problem created from the combination of high stakes for the PhD student, the relative untouchableness of tenured professors, and the willingness of both sides to perpetuate and endure these unfair conditions. An especially poignant response to the article sums everything perfectly:

In the US there are a thousand rules and protocols of how one should treat laboratory animals, but not a single rule how to treat post-docs or graduate students.

Love it Or Leave It

“Why don’t they just leave if the conditions are so bad?” you may ask. The answer is generally one of the following:

They will lose years of progress.

Many would rather quit all together than have to start over again. If a Ph.D student were to try to dump their research group, the vast majority of their work would be useless to them in their next group – that is, if they can even get into another one. Horror stories of people spending a decade or more to get a Ph.D because of circumstances like these abound forums and guidebooks. (The New York Times says the average time to acquire a Ph.D is 8.2 years. Pretty close to a decade already!) Many people don’t want to leave their current group, even if they hate it, for fear of becoming another one of these tales. Even worse, if you leave with an “ABD” (All But Dissertation), your resume’s worth barely increases at all. In fact, many  people are ashamed to put their ABD status on a resume because it makes them look like they were too lazy to get to the finish line.

They’ll be deported.

Many Ph.D students, especially in the sciences, are international students. Many of them will be the first in their families to go to the United States in pursuit of a doctorate, and are under extreme pressure to do well. To make things worse, one study has shown that international students from certain countries integrate their boss’ feedback as part of their self-image more strongly than Americans, making them more likely to endure unreasonable working conditions. The punchline is that if they choose to quit their research group and cannot immediately find another one, they stand a high possibility of being deported. Not only do they lose their progress, but they also get thrown back to their home country where opportunities are even more scarce.

Imposters are Everywhere

High level research and academia is already a land fraught with crushing competition and bleak outlooks. The pressure and rampant overachievement is so pervasive that we practically created a mental condition: Imposter Syndrome. It is a creeping, omnipresent feeling of not being good enough, feeling stupid compared to your peers, feeling like your accomplishments are from pure luck rather than hard work. These issues are present in any field that has high entry barriers and populated with high achievers, but is further exacerbated by allowing the fanatical worker to become the norm. Accepting that the only way to keep up is to sacrifice your outside life to the altar of research is short sighted and dangerous to the entire profession. Considering the mental health landscape we are already in, it is also inhumane and twisted.

If you were to look at almost any research study regarding graduate student mental health, the message is the same: the 24/7 researcher is not a healthy or sustainable model. You will find that one highlighted solution is the promotion of the ‘Whole Student’, getting a life outside of the lab, library or classroom, and generally maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Hyun et al. surveyed thousands of international and domestic graduate students across many universities. Amongst the domestic students, 46% self-reported having emotional/stress-related problems, and over half – 56% have considered seeking therapy or mental health care. These statistics are concerning. However, the real danger  is in the normalization of those stress levels. To quote Academic Matters (emphasis mine):

There is a dangerous slippage between understanding high-stress as a common experience and interpreting the banality of high-stress as a non-issue. The normalization of the high levels of stress is one of the primary barriers for graduate students in seeking mental health services.

Basically, because people think the  high stress levels are normal, they don’t get help when mental health issues (almost inevitably) show up.

By embracing the 24/7 Researcher, we are endangering the mental well-being of graduate students everywhere. 

The Cloistered Researcher

The science landscape is one filled with romantics – some long for the “good old days” when researchers worked tirelessly at a problem until they either dropped dead or solved it. Look back at the Nature article:

But many older folk wistfully recall their early postdoc careers, when they had one or two clear challenges to focus on late into the night, and over weekends too.

Let me paint a caricature based on how I see things: Those professors whose graduate school careers were defined solely by their research will not stand the idea that the next generation wont have the same experiences that they did! Those who are not completely dedicated do not deserve to be researchers. The degree of dedication demanded from their students suggests that they are obsessively passionate – having their life defined by one thing, their self-image depending upon it. Because of this, it’s only natural that they push the same expectations on the people they are supposed to be nurturing. Obsessive passion doesn’t foster innovation, it destroys – says the Harvard Business Review,

But isn’t persistence a good thing? Many great works appear to have come about due to an obsessive focus on work to the exclusion of all else. The research suggests this may be a myth. It’s important to distinguish between flexible and rigid forms of persistence. Those with obsessive passion rigidly persist even when it’s no longer sensible to do so. Those with harmonious passion are much more flexible, and are ultimately more successful. This may explain why so many child prodigies fizzle out later in life — regardless of their talent. By being obsessively attached their domain, they are increasing their chances of burning out.

Pushing these expectations is toxic, and it’s not going unnoticed – dissatisfaction with research work is immense! When you ask 5th year graduate students (those who haven’t left already, Ph.D drop rates are around 50%) over half feel less likely to continue in research work. Who does this leave? The people who are willing to sacrifice everything and work like drones, not necessarily the brightest, most creative minds.

By embracing the 24/7 Researcher, we are burning out great minds and driving talented people away from important work.

Our Choice

In the end, we must make a choice. How do we define who researchers are?

I. Researchers are a special, rather masochistic breed. The only people who deserve to practice science and succeed are those people who give up everything else in their lives up for the pursuit of knowledge.

II. Researchers are humans like everybody else, and have the same needs. Although we are in a competitive field, we must remain vigilant to preserve the well-being and mental health of our fellows, in the belief that this will benefit everyone.

Which side suits you?

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From → Food for Thought

21 Comments
  1. Oddny permalink

    Thank you! As a single mother doing a PhD, that editorial in Nature was rather scary! I agree with your opinion that the breed of scientists the 24/7 method produces is hardly beneficial to science, let alone the human race.

  2. DrEv permalink

    You approach your (future) career with great maturity. That is great to read.

    As for myself, I suffered dearly as a graduate student (Master’s and Ph.D) and as a post doc (two of those). My last stint was so terrible that I actually left science for a time – two critical papers as a post doc left unpublished due to threats and harassment and my need to avoid a complete breakdown. As you well know, those two papers would have been the key to achieving a research faculty position. As it stood, I thought I was finished.

    Shortly there after I took up a different type of position – clinical work – and had a daughter. With friends and collaborators I kept my foot in the door with the hopes of somehow going back when I had recovered sufficiently. Gradually I became more of a consultant, but even that looked good ‘on paper’.

    Six years later (the present) I now have a teaching faculty job and with the blessing of my department head, I can begin a small research program with but with no money and with the help of interested undergraduate students. But, I’ll take it.

    With no money, I’m using my smarts and intelligence to develop new ways to ask old questions – and to do so cheaply. I doubt I have another Nature paper in my (near) future because those publications take (among other things) 1) luck and 2) lots of money to use the latest equipment (sadly this is how things are to be taken seriously at that ‘level’ it seems).

    The funding levels now are approaching the impossible. On that line, I’d suggest to you that you missed one point in why we allow ourselves, as scientists, to suffer so and take the abuse. Likely because you haven’t reached that plateau yourself yet. And that is “you need your boss to get to the next level and your boss knows it”. Many a post-doc is taken hostage that way as well. You need that last bit of work to help you get going as an independent scientist. As well as those papers. Plus, with the funding levels – you need your last boss as a crutch and collaborator more than ever before. Many post-docs transition with junior or research faculty jobs. Or they end up running facilities to get going.

    In any case. Attitudes much change. And I’m glad to see you got fired up enough to rebut the editorial. It does give me hope.

    Scientists ARE special people.

  3. Bonku permalink

    Thanks for talking straight.
    American (and in many other countries that follow US model) higher education and research is increasingly being dominated by mediocre people since late 1970s. Many of such people have already penetrated the higher and policy making positions. I wish every young students, mainly in biology, read the book, “Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature” by famous biologist, Erwin Chargaff, before undertaking academic research for its career. Here is an excellent article and excerpt on that “The Great Dilemma of the Life Sciences”: http://jaychatterjee.blogspot.com/2010/12/great-dilema-of-life-sciences.html . Also read the comments below that piece.

  4. Thanks for writing this response to the Nature article. Dr. Julia Overbaugh’s article in the same issue of Nature is proof that one can be successful and still have a life outside the lab, and I was disappointed that the Nature editorial dismissed her story as an interesting alternative but ultimately unrealistic considering the reality of science funding. It would be nice if Nature did a bit more to change the status quo and the stereotype of the overworked scientist.

    I’m fortunate that my Ph.D. advisor doesn’t expect to see me in the lab on weekends or late at night, and one of my committee members (who is a full professor) got where she is without having to be in the lab 24/7 so I know that it is possible to be a successful and productive scientist without having to work inhumane hours.

  5. I’d like to thank everybody for their comments! Please keep them coming and keep telling others about it – this post is getting a response beyond any I could have hoped for.

  6. Cancerkiller permalink

    Thank you for writing this article. As DrEV says above, I also ” suffered dearly as a graduate student (Master’s and Ph.D)… still perishing as one since the advisor is not letting me graduate although I am in 7th year!!

    There are SO many things wrong with the way research is set up today. There is only one person who gets the judge you and decide you fate. Ironically, in my case, I bring in the money due to my pre-doctoral fellowship and hence the boss doesnt want to part with me! The research article is been ready for 2 years but the boss kept saying that ‘its not ready’ , whenever I tried to publish it.

    Also, in case of graduate students, more senior you are, better you get with your work and the advisor does not want you to go! The dean/committee is a farce as no one really wants to stand up for a graduate student and mess up their relationship with a big faculty in university. Also, lets not forget all faculties need each other for their own politics!! I am so sick and tired of this system. I dont want to quit because
    1. I have put 7 years of hard work. These are golden years of my 20s and now 30s and I gave my 100% to this. I have great data and one day it will cure cancer.
    2. I am an international student!! yes, the pressure is much more, when you are an international student! I basically have no choice but to put up with the slave-driver to keep a good standing or be deported to a country. I love my country, but I dont want to go empty handed.

    Graduate school is a fiasco. There are real issues and then there is lab politics!! We need better regulations for graduate students/post docs. I know a girl who overworked and had to leave science at age of 37 due to stress related medical condition. Also, people in research seem to have more divorces too!! Is research really worth your life, family and health? I dont think so.

  7. NewPostDoc permalink

    Another thank you for writing this! My graduate school advisor was of the “work harder” mold and often told us that, “graduate school is a special time in your life when you can put aside ‘distractions’ and really focus on research”. This response infuriated me because I hadn’t even entered graduate school intending to stay in academia; I wanted the additional preparation for a future research career outside the academy. By the time I finished 8 years later (with more all-nighters than I could count), I didn’t have the desire to be in research at all anymore.

    Fortunately (for my research career), I reluctantly fell into a postdoc position as a result of moving with my significant other to another city and found an advisor who has allowed for a much more balanced lifestyle. I’m enjoying research again and feel like I’m as productive now, working 40 to 50 hours per week, as I was before working 60 to 80 hours per week.

    It’s not clear to me what can be done in the way of regulations. Certainly, having graduate student unions might start things down the right path. However, there are many ways for PIs to route around regulations, and potentially “abuse” the system, given the power dynamic between advisor and student being the way that it is. The graduate school culture itself needs to shift in addition to potential new rules.

    • NewPostDoc – thanks for the comment! I think there are a couple of actions that can be taken for a better future without significant government involvement (not that I’m against it, but just saying…):

      I believe The Council of Graduate Schools should set up a self-regulated program, opt-in where PIs write a “letter of culture” that reflects the expectations that the PI has for his or her group. It should outline the typical number of hours worked, whether working on weekends is expected or required, whether there are any expectations on number of papers published before they approve a thesis, what their policy on vacation time is, or any other pertinent PI-by-PI expectations.

      I believe one major reason why PIs who are slavedrivers (to use a very non-PC term here) continue to acquire graduate students is that many do not know what working for this person is like. Imagine if you read the Carreira Letter ( http://www.chemistry-blog.com/tag/carreira-letter/ ) before making a decision to join a group. Do you think you would join any more? Perhaps some would, but they would be much better informed on what they were getting themselves in for. I think information is essential!

      I believe that if a system like this were implemented and made very well known to prospective graduate students, many would shy away from groups that did not have a letter of culture or one that did not fit their way of living. This would drain “work 24/7” groups of people to some extent and perhaps force the PI to make a change.

      There are a number of other ideas, but I will probably write another post on it soon.

  8. Josh,

    I share your anger on this issue. That Nature article was totally irresponsible in my opinion. It makes me mad whenever I read about PI’s who use and abuse their grad students, or even any arrogant comments that perpetuate the notion that an all-work-and-no-play lifestyle is normal and OK for a Ph.D. student. The whole issue still annoys me even though I’ve since graduated with my Ph.D. and actually had a PI who was a decent human being (through no accident; I was careful in my selecting a boss). For grad students who earn so little, put in so many hours, and are at the complete mercy of their advisers, there really should be some legal framework to protect them from abuse. How many institutions have grad student unions? Someone should lobby for something. If employees in a company can have rights, why should grad students be treated worse than dirt in certain research groups?! Kinda reminds one of the sweatshops in third world countries.

    P.S. I found your link in the comments section of that Nature article

  9. NewPostDoc permalink

    Josh, I agree that “letters of culture” could work to mitigate the problem, but a lot of the time, people are forewarned, by word-of-mouth if nothing else, about the professors with “that reputation” in the department. Letters would formalize this process (and I think it’s a smart step to implement), but it still doesn’t address the limited number of funded positions in a department. Some people will want to gravitate away from a particular advisor, but if no funded positions are available, they may end up in a less-than-ideal situation (it’s hard to switch labs after one’s first year or two). I think this problem particularly affects international students who, if they don’t find a position in their department, have few other options short of returning to their home countries. As a result, they’re more likely to sign up with a research group they may have doubts about.

  10. Werner Mewes permalink

    I am much relieved that the Nature article on 24/7 got that much response and criticism. Indeed, it reflects an unreflected paradigm that is oriented in only one dimension, namely the success of the lab equivalent to its head. It follows the principles of Henry Ford`s factory line, a principle that still dominates the American and other western societies. I like to call it “the more the better” way of competition. But there is no lack of work force in science – if we accept the cost for it. There is no reason to have one person working for 70 hours a week, if two bright Ph.D. students can do the job, study, write their (!) papers and reflect what they do (and what their boss is doing).

    The problem in the life sciences is not the generation of data, it is the belief that the discovery of the underlying principles of disease etiology will fall out as soon as we have enough information. The experimental space is unlimited, thus the smart conception will win over the repetition. Experiments and observations are necessary, but to overcome their current limits, new concepts, reflecting the complex nature of biology, the properties of complex biological networks and the cognitive difficulty to handle them, are needed. In cancer research, more than 100.000 papers are published annually, most of them contain valuable information, but nobody (even 24/7! ) is able to read and comprehend them any more. We pursue the wrong way (the same holds for the need to increase the economic productivity ad infinitum to serve capital interest).

    As a professor responsible for some 10 Ph.D. students and a quite a few more undergraduates, I learned that the steady career development must have the highest priority (yes, including the selection of the best, although there is no definition for what is “best”). The 24/7 lab will generate lab rats asking for the threat mill, it becomes a bare addiction. Conducting research in a responsible position means responsibility, credibility and dedication to the young. There are many ways to be successful, some I call modern forms of slavery. I think, we need not to discuss slavery as practical principle of modern education. Science means at the end: education another generation that is able to use the opportunities in a modern world of information (see also the discussion on edge.org).

    It is not by chance that the lab described is a medical one. The work ethics in surgery has a long tradition of 36 hrs shifts, including dramatic life rescue stories. Under conditions of battlefield and natural catastrophes, heroism is an appropriate and necessary reaction. Surgeons are highly susceptible to burn out, alcohol and drug addiction and suffer from diseases caused by long stress exposure. Are these the goals of the 24/7 lab? It fatally reminds me to the Stachanov “heros of labor” in the former Soviet Union.

    Let me add one comment on the human side: our papers in science (that is the sometimes brutal reality) will be forgotten soon, science does not wait for us in a world where billions of dollars are thrown on few “grand challenges” in a way driven by or socio-economic culture rather than by rationality. But what we do or not do to our students, friends and families will last not only for another generation. 24/7 in the lab is irresponsible against us, our own neurobiology (in terms of stress), our own dreams of life. Getting older, no colleague I know said “I did not spend enough time in the lab”, but almost all noticed, that they missed the chance to spend time with the kids. Humans have natural limits, physically and mentally. At the end – let us be honest – the Ph.D. title awarded is no more than virtual reality, it is an academic symbol, not a qualification for a better life.

    To keep me right: the group/institute that I headed over the last 20 years has published close to 500 papers including quite a few in Nature and Science. Scientists and students are dedicated to their work – even under the present rules of the game, the 24/7 is neither human nor efficient.

  11. aworldofwonders permalink

    Great article.

    About the “cloistered researcher” part, I would like to add that it wouldn’t improve the image of science in society, first because they would sound like some kind of weird, “dafty” and asocial folks unwilling to share about what they work on. Furthermore, during that time, are these graduate students taught about science communication, explain concepts to people who aren’t into science, talk about their research and so on? Not certain. To me, promoting such a model is dangerous because it could lead to disconnect even more science – through some part of young researchers and their potential inability to promote it- from the rest of society, and that’s moreover not a good stuff for policy-making decisions.
    Are these graduate students do 24/7 research pretty well-paid, because it sounds like an opportunity for universities to reduce costs off these students not to hire some experienced researchers , who could even actually help them being more efficient in their work.

    • Great comment, thanks for the questions!

      I believe some graduate programs are instituting some required, rudimentary courses on professional development (mine included) that may spend some time on science communication (mine not included). I definitely don’t think the science community is there yet in being able to convey their worth properly to the outside world. (It’s probably one reason why it’s so hard to find scientists in politics!)

      I agree with your sentiment on the trend being damaging. The more we believe that communicating our work is for “other people,” the more we are digging ourselves into a corner.

      Graduate students are certainly not well paid; a student working 60-70 hours a week on a typical stipend would likely be making at/below minimum wage / hour of work. However, many stipends do include health benefits, which is a boon with the state of our economy/health care system.

      It’s not truly the university saving money by hiring graduate students in most cases, generally (at least to my knowledge) the research faculty advising the graduate student pays out of their own pockets (funded by grants) for the graduate students, unless they are just starting a research program. Academic PIs hiring a larger amount of long-term (not postdoc appointment) researchers into their program would help balance the supply/demand issue for PhD-holders, and would very likely ease the pain that PhD candidates have to go through – I’d definitely advocate for that.

  12. Steven permalink

    I am an undergraduate and have just come back from a summer placement at a Synchrotron. The call this “post-doc syndrome”, where post-docs are expected to work 80+ hours a week without complaint.

    One senior scientist there actually said (about a fellow scientist) “if he wanted to spend time with his kids he shouldn’t have got a job here” without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

    It was a valuable esperience for me, as until then I was considering doing a doctorate. I’m applying for graduate jobs at engineering firms now.

    • Steven, I’m glad you were exposed to some of the tedium that comes with academic research so that you could make an informed decision! That synchrotron certainly doesn’t sound like a very friendly place to work. There are definitely places where you can work sane hours without fear of losing your job, but graduate school is kind of a gamble because it’s difficult to know what you’re getting into until you’re actually in!

      Thanks for reading.

  13. Science is a harsh mistress and this saying has always been true . I have been through the politics of science for almost a decade and have come to the conclusion that science is not just about intelligence, hard work and making history by investing endless hours on cool projects. There is a big divide between the way a graduate student looks at his project and the way his advisor (some of them) look at his project. No matter how hard the student tries, the ball is never going to be in his or her court. This is my saga. I joined a lab where the advisor was great and a very nice human being. He was a mentor and not a tormentor but he suddenly walked away from mentoring me and told me that he has been accepted as a Chairman in another University. All my plans of getting a PhD under him were shattered. What was my fault I am not able to understand until today. My boss could have told me earlier that he has a plan to leave the institution and I would have never joined him to begin with. I lost a year of my work . I changed my advisor but this time, my new boss , who i had rotated with during my lab rotations but had never joined him, carried this grudge against me. He made me work on an experiment for ten months which he himself couldn’t do no matter how hard he tried. I spent my Christmas, Birthday and New Year’s day in the lab trying to troubleshoot that experiment all my myself. My wife and I were married for only four months and had never been able to take my wife on a dinner date owing to excruciating lab pressure. Since my second advisor wasn’t an expert on the experiments related to this project all he would say to me was I wasn’t trying hard enough and sometime abuse me in lab meeting in front of junior students by saying stop FAR**NG around. I cried all alone late in the evenings but wiped my tears before coming home so that my wife does not suffer seeing her husband in this misery. You said it right that there are no rules for the graduate students and unfortunately many PI tailors the rules to suit their selfish interest. I graduated cum laude in my senior year and have always love science but now I will do anything but research.

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