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.
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.
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?)