notification from HIAS

How hard should science trainees work? One perspective

This used to not be a particularly controversial subject. But it has become one, and I do understand some of the reasons behind that. Unfortunately, because it has practically become a third rail, many are afraid to address it in any form. Here’s my attempt.

Part of the difficulty is that none of us can truly know how hard someone else should work. We know how hard we’ve worked to get wherever we got, and we know how hard we continue to work. Still, memories are unreliable and can be embellished one way or another and there seems to be a bias against accounting for the luck that has contributed to our success in this world. But here’s an effort at a direct answer. As a PhD student and postdoc (1988–2001), I generally worked between 40 and 60 hours a week. The average was maybe in the low-to-mid 50s, but, honestly, I wasn’t counting and some weeks it was more. Overall, that meant putting in some time on weekends as well as some extended days during the week. But I also took off long weekends to camp and travel. I took off occasional mornings or afternoons to climb or ski midweek. And I took a couple of decent breaks every year for road trips or to visit family. Overall, I worked quite hard, but I also had a reasonably balanced life. Most importantly, I tried to work efficiently, thought hard about my science, and came up with most of my own ideas from the get-go, including the future direction of my work as a PI. And for the record, there’s zero doubt in my mind that I (personally) needed to work as hard as I did to be nominally successful. Likewise, there’s no doubt that I’ll need to continue working hard if I hope to maintain an active, funded lab. That’s always been the case for me.

Another way to address this question (or perhaps avoid answering it) is by asking some other questions. (1) If a pre-med student were to ask you how hard they should work in college, what would you tell them? You’d probably point out that getting into medical school is very competitive and that they’ll need to have excellent grades and other types of qualifications. In other words, it’s almost certain that they’ll have to work hard, regardless of their innate talents. (2) If a high school athlete expressed a desire to play Division 1 sports or maybe aspired to be an Olympian, what would you advise? Again, you’d likely point out that the world they’re trying to break into is extremely competitive and that they’ll be up against others who possess considerable talent and drive. Significant time and commitment will be essential. (3) What if someone wanted to make it as an author, musician, actor, or artist? Same answer, right? And we generally accept these “doses of reality” because it’s just ingrained common sense. Is science so very different?

As individuals pursuing our complex life goals, we all need periodic reality checks. Are we on the right path or trajectory? Do we potentially have what it takes to be successful, in so far as we’ve defined success? Even if we do, are we sufficiently committed? And do we possess the self-awareness and courage to recognize when our goals might need to be scaled back or even altered entirely? Being honest with oneself and with the individuals we work with is essential.

On the more nuts-and-bolts side of things, most research groups will have some minimal (stated or unstated) expectation regarding effort and productivity. And these will differ between labs. But doing the minimum required just to keep your advisor or supervisor satisfied probably isn’t the goal. Hopefully, you’re motivated by more than the prospect of avoiding discipline or dismissal. Still, compared to the (good/bad) old days, the bar seems to be somewhat lower (on average) than what scientists of my generation grew up with. Many of us think that’s an overall positive development. There needs to be a life balance, and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice important aspects of your life just to achieve decent success in science. Happily, there are many examples of successful scientists who’ve done just that.

Where it gets thorny is determining if your current/preferred level of effort will be sufficient for you to achieve your desired goals. And no one can answer that for you. Another problem is that there’s no upper limit to how hard an individual can work, at least in theory. This can lead to a perennial and pointless sense of guilt when we’re not working, something many in my generation still suffer from. Truth be told, for certain (rare) individuals, working in the lab is pretty much all they want to do, and that’s their right. For many others, focusing exclusively on science would be unhealthy, unsustainable, and counterproductive. I’m certainly in that boat. It’s a cliché, but it’s often helpful and even necessary to step back and give your brain and body some time to recharge. So, by putting more time in the lab will you increase your productivity and chances of “success”? Possibly. But if you’re already applying yourself, maybe you’d be better off focusing on your efficiency, experimental planning, and knowledge of the field. Or thinking about how your work fits into the big picture and how framing it in this context might change the direction of your research. That’s for you to figure out, potentially with input from your mentors and colleagues. One thing is certain, however, which is that all the successful scientists I’ve known were strongly committed to their goals and knew how to push very hard when they needed to. It wasn’t the only ingredient to their success, but it was surely one of them.

Also, consider this old cynical joke concerning medical doctors. What do you call a person who graduates at the very bottom of their medical school class? Doctor. Which brings up some differences between the clinical and scientific realms. For better or worse, getting into medical school is likely the chief bottleneck for most MDs. Once in, medical schools don’t like to wash anyone out, so marginal students can usually scrape by and find employment as physicians. (Yikes!) Not so much for PhDs though. Yes, getting the degree is a necessary credential, but it will do relatively little for you if it’s not backed up by solid accomplishments, meaning things like papers. And this doesn’t end with graduate school. It will continue through your postdoc years and for the remainder of your scientific research career. We must continually prove ourselves worthy of the next position, grant, or promotion by being productive. Sure, there are various ways to step off this treadmill, but the workload for teaching-intensive jobs, for example, is still substantial, and industry doesn’t have a high tolerance for staff scientists who aren’t competent and productive. So how hard will you need to work? The short answer is, clearly, hard enough!

As a former graduate program director, I’ve seen many examples of good and bad mentoring including what can happen if mentors don’t at least try to be truthful about what it takes to be successful in our business. This requires giving honest, well-intentioned input to personnel about how they’re doing, which may include whether they’re putting in sufficient time, effort, and thought. Trainees also need to be up front with advisors about their goals, which can understandably change. Ultimately, trainees need to take full responsibility for their careers and futures. Self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-reliance are essential. And lab members shouldn’t shy away from asking tough questions of their mentors. How am I doing in your opinion? What are the areas in which I can improve? Am I on a reasonable trajectory given my stated career goals? Yes, these conversations can be uncomfortable, because the last thing most of us want to hear is that we are not doing as well as we should. (And, rest assured, these conversations can be uncomfortable for the mentors as well!) At the very least, being as straight as possible with each other (while still striving to be kind), means that we can all make progress.