Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the detection of interstellar boron sulfide: a response

Many of you have probably seen this letter making the rounds on Facebook, or even appearing on AstroBetter. While I can't verify the provenance of the letter, it's dismaying to see the pressure being put on the students in that astronomy department to buy into a workaholic culture. Not all the advice is bad, but there are some real stinkers in there.
So, here's my own letter of advice.
First, at the risk of revealing myself to be an imposter, let me say that I work 40-50 hours on a regular basis, and almost always have. This may change when there's an important proposal deadline looming, but I have never found working 80-100 hours a week to be sustainable. In fact, my productivity generally takes a big nose dive as I increase my hours of work, because I just can't think as clearly when I don't sleep, eat, and exercise regularly.
I don't think my career has suffered as a result. I graduated with a PhD from Harvard, had two named postdoc fellowships, and am now tenure-track faculty at a research university. I even managed to have two kids along the way. Granted, I may not be at the most prestigious university in the country, but quite frankly, if it takes 80-100 hours a week to succeed there, I'll stay right where I am, thank you very much. I am very pleased to be in a department where the typical Monday morning conversations goes something like: "What did you do over the weekend?" "I took my family camping/pumpkin picking/to the zoo. How about you?" "I went hiking/skiing/rafting up in the mountains, want to see pictures?"
Just because you don't spend every waking hour thinking about your research doesn't mean you're a bad scientist. I love that fact that nearly everyone in my department has interests outside astronomy, whether it's enjoying the outdoors, writing novels, performing music, or playing sports. It makes us all well-rounded people and better colleagues. We are all also passionate about our research, too, it's just not the only thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.
Second, the bad news. The job market is definitely worse than it was a decade or two ago. Budget cuts to universities and federal grant agencies have dried up funding for jobs at all levels. It would be disingenuous and a disservice to you to tell you otherwise. I wish I had something encouraging to say about this, except that in my experience, perseverance is key.
Third, faculty should be willing to listen to complaints and criticism from their students, even if it comes across as rude. If the students are pissed off, something has gone awry, and getting in a huff about it won't fix the problem. You know how getting a negative referee report can feel bad at first, but in the end you have to take the feedback like a big girl and address all the comments in a mature fashion? Yeah, this is the same thing.
Also, don't talk down to your students if you really think of them as peers.