I’m not expecting unreasonable time commitments from other academics

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Is it possible that you’re spending too much time on research? If you wish, that’s a question that you can ask yourself. It’s not really my business*.

I think when you work outside a 9-5ish workday should be a personal decision**. That means nobody should prescribe a regular habit of working overtime. That also means it’s nobody’s place to tell you that working overtime is wrong or bad. It’s a free country, after all (at least, for some of us, for the time being).

Of course, the nature of our science might call on us to work odd hours on occasion. (For example, I go to the field for a few weeks at a time, and I recently worked over the weekend during crunch time for a big grant. And, I’m writing this blog post late on a Sunday night. So yeah, I get that evening/weekend work happens on occasion. When my kid is doing homework in the evening, there’s a good chance I am, too.)

This weekend, a conversation on science twitter expanded from a remark about whether graduate students can only succeed if they work evenings and weekends all the time. I wasn’t tuned into all of the conversation – there was a lot of it — but there was no shortage of contentiousness and a lot of folks were talking past one another. I thought it was self-evidently a silly notion of mine, because who works “all the time” on evenings and weekends after all?

So this post is for those not on twitter, and to provide some contextualization for those who are. (I should point out that Mike Kaspari wrote a post first, and his thoughts are particularly great and useful, as you might expect if you’re familiar with his work. So do please check this out. Also, a post from The new PI hits similar and useful notes. They both discuss the need for finding the right lab for you and your needs, which is a constructive take-home message. I’d guess more are forthcoming. My initial and continuing thoughts have been shaped in part by this post by Meg Duffy from two years ago.)

I wasn’t too surprised to find that some people really do want to spend all their waking hours on their academic work. More power to you. I was more surprised, though, to find some of these folks were saying that others should also passionately dedicate most of their free time towards science, if they were intending to pursue an academic career. And I was like, whoah. Hold on there.

Don’t get me wrong. In the first year of this site, I was emphatic that it’s perfectly fine for us to spend a lot of time on research, and that nobody should be prescriptive about assigning time away from academic work. I haven’t changed my mind since then. I love my research, and sometimes I work more than 40 hours per week. But this doesn’t mean that I should have similar expectations of others!

I think there’s a big reason this conversation on twitter became a relative mess — there was one word that served as a Rorschach blot: “success.” What does it mean to succeed? To make discoveries? To publish many papers? To publish high quality work? To get a permanent position? To keep up with the rate of productivity of one’s peers? To earn the esteem of your colleagues? To be able to pay your bills in comfort and have personal satisfaction?

So yeah, this conversation will go downhill really quickly if we can’t agree on what it means to succeed in science. This gets at why we work hard at doing science.

When we are working long hours, I imagine we all experience two pressures. First, there is the Muse, in which the excitement of the work propels you to keep working on and on because you want to get to the answer of the question that is intellectually stimulating to you. Second, there is the Demon in pursuit, making sure that you get those papers and grants, land the postdoc, or the job, or tenure, or that position along a blue coast near family, or that promotion, or the endowed professorship, or that slot in the National Academy.

As for me, I’ve received my PhD almost 18 years ago, and I have discovered some passions that have nothing to do with peer-reviewed publications. I’ve made good friends with the Muse and the Demon. We lunch on a regular basis, just the three of us, and chat like the old friends we are. When I’m alone with Demon, I can’t be chased anywhere I haven’t already been. The Muse and I sometimes sit down and read a novel together before she nudges me towards the laptop.

I am absolutely thrilled about the science that I’m doing. But it’s not going to keep me from my family, or from pleasure reading, or from backpacking once in a while, or from cooking a real meal at dinnertime. Or a vacation. Though I’m an ant biologist, I once took a vacation to Iceland for three weeks, where there are no ants at all. I hung out with my family, went to museums, saw amazing sights, watched some whales, and learned about the land and the people without really focusing on my research. According to E.O. Wilson, that means I’m not a “real scientist.” Let’s hope he doesn’t read my blog, because if he does, then maybe he’ll think less of my papers? Which is a shame because he wrote my favorite paper ever.

I did learn a bit from twitter about how some folks are prescriptive about how much other people should be working. Some people — and some programs — are explicit about expecting students and faculty to work very long hours. In other places, the expectations are tacit but just as real.

I find it really weird that any academic would find himself (it’s always been guys, in my limited experience) to prescribe the amount of time that another academic should be working. If you’re supervising someone, then I imagine you’re not paying them more than 40 hours per week. And if you’re mentoring someone, aren’t you really focused on the product and the efficiency of the process? How about you set targets and make sure those targets are met, instead of just saying, “Be sure to work your ass off.”

For example, as a PI, I don’t tell my students how many hours to work. I set expectations, and when we meet about progress, I see how their work meets the expectations that I set. If get done what we agreed should be done, great! I’m not going to police them to make sure they worked a long period of time.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts about the expected time demands of academic research, that relate to the p-word, and I’m just going to collect them here, and you can fashion together an argument out of them (or a counterargument, if that’s how you roll).

  • It seems like almost everybody complains about the importance of using publication metrics to measure academic success.
  • The way departments and universities structure the academic reward system, quality is secondary to quantity, and this can be changed by Deans and members of search committees.
  • The amount of science that you do isn’t a measure of your value as a scientist to the academic community, it’s the quality and significance of the work you do.
  • Working all the time probably won’t increase the importance or impact of the work that you do.
  • Most graduate students are not going to end up in tenure-track positions and faculty that use their own practices as a required model for their students may be doing themselves and the community a disservice.
  • Scientists are engaged in an evolutionary arms race when it comes to the volume of academic production, in a manner that doesn’t really help anybody except maybe some high-level administrators fueled by the overhead generated by grants.
  • Almost no scientists are trained in business management and may not know how to work with their labs to get effective work accomplished in normal working hours.
  • The people who put rovers on Mars work 40 hours per week. You can be a talented and important STEM professional and work the same number of hours as people with normal desk jobs — like scientists tend to do in other nations.
  • I don’t know about you, but I’ve visited and worked in labs in Europe, Australia, and Japan. These folk take real weekends on a regular basis and don’t often take their work home, but they are as productive as USian scientists, if not more productive.
  • It’s not really clear that working more than 40-50 hours per week increases your productivity. There may be diminishing, or even negative, returns.
  • Some very successful people in academia work 40-50 hours per week.
  • Parents tend to spend personal time doing parental things.
  • Disabled people may require more time to get certain tasks done.
  • A lot of women are married to crappy husbands who fail to do their fair share of the parenting.
  • Academia has a chronic problem with gender equity.
  • If we are going to be building an equitable community, then it’s not likely this community will involve everybody working all of the time, because then there are going to be a lot of stinky unchanged diapers polluting our nation’s college towns.
  • If a person is getting done what they need to get done to advance their career while still having a reasonable amount of personal time, what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all.
  • If a person is getting done what they want to get done by using all of their personal time for science, is that wrong? Of course not. (I admit I’d be uncomfortable if this person got job over a single parent just because they had one or two more pubs on their CV, but that’s on us on search committees to evaluate the quality of a person’s science, not the sheer volume of it.)
  • If working more does result in getting more stuff done, then rewarding a high quantity of academic production will continue to favor people who have the luxury of dedicating every waking hour to science.
  • In my experience, most academics think it is very important to prioritize the development of a diverse and equitable academic community, that provides access to people of all backgrounds.
  • If graduate programs expect students to devote more than 60 hours per week to research, then this places a barrier to recruiting students from first-generation university backgrounds from families that do not have direct experience with universities and academic cultures.
  • On average, women end up doing more housework than their male partners – even when the dude is unemployed.
  • Not everybody has the same amount of available free time outside regular working hours — and these differences are distributed unevenly across gender, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • A lot of personal decisions that don’t have negative intent, that are done for positive reasons, end up perpetuating systemic inequities.
  • Resolving systemic inequities is a tough nut to crack.
  • If we value scientists on the merits of their work, rather than the volume of their work, we will end up with not only with a more equitable community, but also perhaps one that does more transformative science.

Here’s my last thought:

Passion for science is wonderful. Passion for science is important. Passion for science is what drives people to do great science. That doesn’t mean that scientists need to abandon other priorities and passions. It’s okay for science to be a regular job. If you’re uncomfortable with that, is that really a problem for someone else, or just a problem for you?

 

 


*Well, I would bring it up perhaps if something happened that made me concerned about your health and you’re my close friend or mentee.

** I share my experiences and opinions here, but I don’t give advice here. I my ideas inform your thinking, great! If not, fine! I might make some generalized claims and say how we act may have repercussions around us, but that’s not prescriptive. The last thing I want to do is be in the advice business. If you interpret what I’ve said on this site as as advice, then it’s because I’ve screwed up as a writer, because that’s rarely my intent.

Knowing your animal and your question

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I’ve read a lot of research proposals and manuscripts. Some manuscripts were rejected, and some proposals didn’t fare so favorably in review. What have I learned from the ones on the lower end of the distribution?

Here’s an idea. It can’t explain everything, but it’s something to avoid.

Some biologists are question people — a particular question or issue unifies their research agenda. Others are organism or biome people — their work is unified by a particular taxon or a particular place. (And some people aren’t so easily categorized, of course.)

For example, some people might work on mating systems, or fire ecology, or geographic distributions, working with a variety of model systems. Other people might work on bees, or rocky intertidal zones, or poppies — and they could be working on a broad variety of conceptual issues.

This isn’t a bad thing. Some of us just have our affinities. It’s not bad, but it might contribute to blind spots.

Here’s something I have found, in a good number of the manuscripts that get trashed in review, and a fair share of the proposals that sink the bottom: They’re really well informed about the organism but not the question, or they’re really well informed about the question and not the organism.

This might seem a bit obvious, but I’ll say it anyway:

If your manuscript or grant is about question A in organism X, make sure that you understand and are familiar with the literature in both A and X.

So for example, if your manuscript is about the physiological ecology of pikas on mountaintops (I just made this up), then you need to address the literature about pikas and the literature about mountaintop biology of all kinds of organisms. If you’re a pika expert, and you limit your discussion to other mammals, then odds are that other scientists will think that you’re missing the point, and you’ll get majorly dinged in peer review.

Likewise, let’s say that you’re a specialist in mountaintop biology, and you decided to do a study on pikas though you haven’t worked much with pikas before. Even if your project is about mountaintops and pikas are just a handy model system for your question, you need to understand and write about the biology of pikas and other mammals, as it relates to your work. Otherwise, you might be saying something off base or not grounded in the biology of the organism.

I’d guess that the majority of academic work in ecology/evolution that gets a really hard time in peer review doesn’t address this issue. It’s not the only problem, but it’s an important one.

I should address the reality that subfields have cliques. Social groups emerge among people who are familiar with one another’s work over the years, and when a new person comes in without a reputation, they might get more scrutiny than someone who is already a member of the club. It isn’t fair, it’s not right, but it’s the way things work sometimes. So if a person who hasn’t published in a particular realm gets reviewed by a well-established expert, it’s not a surprise that they might get a more critical review than they deserve. (It’s the job of editors, of course, to keep this in mind, and to solicit and interpret reviews with an awareness of the potential for this kind of situation.)

 

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Recommended reads #97

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Alan Townsend wrote an op-ed that I think you really need to read: Science might save my daughter. Don’t kill it. (And in his blog, which I absolutely love and have linked to on previous occasions, he explains why he wrote the piece.)

Science censorship is a global issue – a short letter to Nature written by three Aussie ecologists.

Unlearning descriptive statistics. I thought this was really interesting. Continue reading

Taking action at this critical moment

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I’m going to have to suspend business-as-usual. Please stick with me, while I connect some dots to explain how critical this time is for the United States, and, as a corollary, for the world. If you’re reading the news, but not yet marching in the streets, I think this is for you.

Right now, everything counts on Americans who may choose to stand up for our democracy. We’ve been cramming for this exam for months. Now we’ve got our number 2 pencil out, and we’re heading into the exam room. Are we going to pass through this test?

There is a lot going on, but I’d like to point out the central issue at hand. Continue reading

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Recommended reads #96

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I feel a bit guilty that I came upon some cool reads, in the precise moment that my country stopped being a proper democracy. This list is more decline-of-democracy-related than usual. But still even if you’ve had enough of this, there’s enough in here about other things I hope it’s worth your time. In part, because there’s a link in here about how to keep on keepin’ on while still doing your best to resist the the new authoritarian government that has taken over the US.

But I do have things to share, some of which aren’t even about our brave new world.

Just in case you didn’t know, academia.edu is a for-profit venture that exists primarily to gather our information and sell it. Ungood. I’ve stayed away from it for this reason – this article explains how they ended up with a .edu even though they’re not a .edu.

America’s great working class colleges. This is such a great piece of journalism (admittedly  I think this in part because it says things I try to say here often and get it better than I could). Here’s the interactive feature that accompanies the article, which I really suggest you play around with – if anything to get an idea about how the institutions that you are personally familiar with compare to others in ways that you might not have seen visualized before. It was an education for me, surely.

This is a good visualization of gerrymandering. Which (I don’t argue here) is specifically how we got into this hideous mess. Continue reading

In teaching, less is more

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Question: When you’re teaching, how much should you cover?

I propose a couple answers:

Answer A: You shouldn’t cover much, because the more you cover, the less they learn.

Answer B: Trick question! You’re not supposed to “cover” anything! If you teach a topic by just making sure it gets covered in a lecture, then you’re not really teaching it. Continue reading

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Recommended reads #95

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In the United States, a woman died a few months ago of a bacterial infection. This microbe was resistant to all antibiotics available in the US that we were capable of throwing at it.

A paper came out this week, looking at predictors of publication rates among 280 graduate students accepted and enrolled into a biomedical grad program. And — shocker, I know — grades and standardized test scores didn’t matter. The best predictor was the content of the letters of recommendation. You want to know which undergraduates have the greatest research potential? Listen to their undergraduate mentors. Here’s a drugmonkey post about this paper. Continue reading

Knowing something really well doesn’t mean you can teach it well

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Over the holidays, I taught my niece how to throw a frisbee with a forehand. It took five minutes, and she totally picked it up. It was awesome. And then we just played catch for a good long while. There may not be a more pleasant thing than throwing a frisbee on warm afternoon in the park with good company*. Continue reading

There are many ways to be a publicly engaged scientist

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I want to talk about the Who and the How of public engagement.

We should be bringing science to the table with people who aren’t in the market for science. A lot of outreach is preaching to the converted, and that is a valuable form of service. But we also have the ability — and perhaps an obligation — to make science a part of everyday life for a society that just doesn’t think about science on a regular basis. Continue reading

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Recommended reads #93

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An argument for the funding of basic research makes it into the Wall Street Journal.

One way to teach critical thinking is to take a historical issue (in history, science, whatever) and look at the debates surrounding the issue by the people of the time, and then asking, “Who was right?” (I found this via Tavish Bell’s twitter account, where I see consistently interesting stuff about higher ed.)

The abduction of tortoise #1721 Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity

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When I visited the SACNAS conference some weeks ago, I spent most of my time in the exhibit hall, chatting with students at their posters and scoping out the institutional recruitment tables. A few organizations had primo real estate, with a large amount of square footage right by the entrance. They had a small army of representatives, always busy with students. The ones that I recall include USC, Harvard, and NSF.

There’s no doubt that NSF is serious about its institutional mission to develop the most talented scientific workforce in this country, which means we need scientists from all backgrounds. If you think that NSF isn’t committed to the recruitment of underrepresented minorities (URMs), you probably don’t have a lot of experience with NSF. They not only care, but they also put a lot of thought into how to do it right. Continue reading

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Recommended reads #92

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Caring isn’t coddling: “While I’m not without gallows humor and can enjoy an ‘it’s in the syllabus’ joke as much as the next person, I also feel deeply that the best teaching arises in faculty-student relationships that are mutually respectful and that mutually honor the worth each side is bringing to the table.”

A shark that was (maybe) choking on a massive chunk of moose was (maybe) saved by a couple guys. Continue reading

Teaching in a time of professor watchlists

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Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.

So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms? Continue reading

On the shrinkage of polar ice caps

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When I was a senior in college, I was in a seminar dedicated to a new book, written by a US senator who had just been elected Vice President. The book was Earth in the Balance. It explained the science of carbon pollution, the greenhouse effect, and global climate change. To me, it was a revelation. I was aware of the greenhouse effect, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem and the massive global effort it would require, until Gore explained it. Continue reading