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.





9 comments:

Sara said...

Thank you for this. As a grad student with similar habits, its very encouraging to hear of someone succeeding with this lifestyle.

Vivienne said...

Thanks for providing us with a counter-example to the "80-100 hour per week" mentality and showing that you can still be a scientist who works decent hours (with exceptions when necessary) and be successful and happy!

L. Trouille said...

Thank you Hannah! Although the letter is discouraging to read, I'm actually happy to see these ideas, that are unfortunately shared by too many, written in print. It provides us a concrete piece to respond to directly and create clear statements about our vision for a supportive climate and culture within our community.

For another sane response providing a healthy counterpoint, see Julianne Dalcanton's post at Cosmic Variance, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/10/10/how-not-to-mentor-your-students/

L. Trouille said...

Hi all,

Also check out John Johnson's response and the comments over there:

http://mahalonottrash.blogspot.com/2012/10/is-nhours-too-much.html

zandperl said...

At an increasing number of schools, the grad students are actually unionized, further complicating the issue. In fact, at many schools the argument has been made that grad student researchers aren't really employees b/c the work they're doing is for their thesis, not for their pay. If you're a unionized TA and you have a 20-hr/week contract, or if you're a unionized RA doing paid research which is different from your thesis research, it's relatively easy to look at your paid work and say "I'm only paid for 20 hours, so I shouldn't do more than 20 hours of work" But if you're a unionized RA working on the same topic as your thesis and you have a 20-hr/week contract, you can't really STOP doing the research 20 hrs/week, even if the money runs out then.

Eric Jensen said...

Great advice, Hannah. Thanks for writing this. The only thing I'd add is that the first few years in a new faculty job can be challenging with, e.g., new classes to prepare that you've never taught before. So for me, anyway, it was the case that the hours I worked during those years were somewhat longer (though never 80-100 hours per week). But I completely agree that there is a sustainable and sane steady-state that is achievable.

Anonymous said...

It's very encouraging to hear this side of the story. As a grad student, I have been torn between both sides at different times. I have grad student friends who put in 40 hours each week and that's that. Yet in my first year, I continuously put somewhere from 50 to 70 hours. I was in three classes, doing an observing project all semester, teaching 2 classes, as well as attempting to begin research. For a first semester grad student, I felt I had no choice but to work in my office 8-5, then go home, eat something, and put in 3 or 4 more hours just to keep up with my responsibilities (and I'm not even at one of the top ten programs, where I imagine the pressure is worse).

Of course, leaving my first year behind, things have improved and I probably work 40 to 50 hours a week. I plan to continue along these lines and finish in four years total.

I'm not really sure what my overall point is here, except that having been in both positions, I can honestly say my life is much better with a balance between work and everything else. I now have time to go to the gym, cook real meals, enjoy hobbies, and even spend time breathing fresh air.
It's good to know that there are successful professors out there who are capable of maintaining a life outside of work. I don't feel it's necessary to perpetuate the unhealthy environments sometimes found in astronomy programs. Sometimes it feels like "we had to go through this; you should too". As one of my friends put it, "there's no need for academic hazing".


Also, I think zandperl has a point. However, as a TA working 20 hours a week, I never had the mentality "Okay I worked 20 hours this week, now I can go home". Instead, the story went that RAs did their research and went home while I was still finishing my grading for the week, then I stuck around for hours and hours doing research just to keep up with them. In terms of hours a week, at leas tin program, TAs tend to have to work many more hours for the same pay than RAs (Meaning total for the job, classes, and research, none of which overlap for the TA, unlike the RA). Of course, maybe I'm off-topic here...

Anonymous said...

It's very encouraging to hear this side of the story. As a grad student, I have been torn between both sides at different times. I have grad student friends who put in 40 hours each week and that's that. Yet in my first year, I continuously put somewhere from 50 to 70 hours. I was in three classes, doing an observing project all semester, teaching 2 classes, as well as attempting to begin research. For a first semester grad student, I felt I had no choice but to work in my office 8-5, then go home, eat something, and put in 3 or 4 more hours just to keep up with my responsibilities (and I'm not even at one of the top ten programs, where I imagine the pressure is worse).

Of course, leaving my first year behind, things have improved and I probably work 40 to 50 hours a week. I plan to continue along these lines and finish in four years total.

I'm not really sure what my overall point is here, except that having been in both positions, I can honestly say my life is much better with a balance between work and everything else. I now have time to go to the gym, cook real meals, enjoy hobbies, and even spend time breathing fresh air.
It's good to know that there are successful professors out there who are capable of maintaining a life outside of work. I don't feel it's necessary to perpetuate the unhealthy environments sometimes found in astronomy programs. Sometimes it feels like "we had to go through this; you should too". As one of my friends put it, "there's no need for academic hazing".


Also, I think zandperl has a point. However, as a TA working 20 hours a week, I never had the mentality "Okay I worked 20 hours this week, now I can go home". Instead, the story went that RAs did their research and went home while I was still finishing my grading for the week, then I stuck around for hours and hours doing research just to keep up with them. In terms of hours a week, at leas tin program, TAs tend to have to work many more hours for the same pay than RAs (Meaning total for the job, classes, and research, none of which overlap for the TA, unlike the RA). Of course, maybe I'm off-topic here... and our dept isn't unionized, so I can't imagine what that's like.

Sharon Xuesong Wang said...

Awesome, awesome post! Wish I had seen this earlier! Thank you!