Sausage Machines in the Academic Lab

There was a bit of a spat over Twitter last week regarding how many hours students (and postdocs) should be expected to do at the bench. This originated in a tweet from a professor of chemistry but I don’t think it is necessary to go through the exchanges in any detail. Suffice it to say that the originator believed that it was impossible to

‘do world class science in 38 hrs per week’.

Others challenged him that work-life balance was important, amongst other complaints, at which point a whole series of defensive tweets regarding the originator’s credentials in the E+D space ensued.

However I think there is an alternative but fundamental point of concern I’d like to raise, important though all the issues of diversity and being able to lead a life beyond the bench simultaneously with completing a PhD are. I didn’t see my concern touched upon, but I wasn’t following the exchanges slavishly as the originator is not someone I personally follow on Twitter so I only saw occasional bits of the conversation. Maybe I missed someone complaining that not all PhD students can or should be expected to be doing world class science. However, I think we should always remember that students who don’t go on to academic careers are not failures. Indeed, we know perfectly well there simply aren’t the jobs in the academic market place to satisfy anything like the numbers who do (initially at least) aspire to be PIs (Principal Investigators), career researchers and ultimately professors. So, either we should not be training so many or we should recognize that there are many other jobs where the skills learned as a PhD student will be invaluable.

What worries me is that those group leaders who head up big groups too often simply see the students as slave labour, pairs of hands or bench monkeys – you get the idea, whatever phrase you care to use. (Note I am not charging the initial tweeter with this sin as, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met him so cannot pass comment. I merely know he has a large group.) They see the students as there to fulfil their own needs – to churn out the papers they need for career progression and the data that will fuel the next grant application – at least as much if not more than they see them as eager young minds, blank vessels to teach and inspire for a myriad of different careers, passing on (and spelling out as they do so) many different skills.

The larger the group is the more I fear this is liable to happen but, beyond a certain size, the problem is exacerbated by what one might term a layer of middle management. The postdocs in a large group are often used as an interface between the lofty professor and the lowly student, mediating the interactions and de facto acting as student supervisors. This can be a wonderful experience for a postdoc and offers them the possibility of learning the skills of supervision and the joy of working with others. I know how much I gained by acting in that capacity during my time in the USA. However, if no one keeps an eye on the postdoc and their interactions with the students under their wing, things can go horribly astray.

Postdocs are rather obviously themselves pushing to get to the next rung on the ladder. Why should they care whether the students themselves are thriving? For many of them it is their own nests they want to feather. A good group leader will make sure this doesn’t happen, that bullying, appropriation of equipment or data is not allowed to take place, and will teach the postdocs good habits of supervision. A PI who is too busy (or selfish) may simply not care as long as there is an impressive stream of results – ideally which fit their pet hypothesis rather than contradict it – and they can see the Nature and Science papers emerging from other people’s hard work. The postdoc who has been left unfettered in this way may then reproduce the same unthinking and uncaring culture if they do continue in academia.

So, what of those students who started their PhDs ambivalent about a career in academia, who perhaps always wanted to move on to industry or scientific publishing, maybe they’re attracted by policy work, science communication or teaching, what of them? They may simply want a ‘good enough’ thesis to pass; Nature papers will not always be crucial for their future aspirations and they may well feel 38 hours a week synthesising tiny quantities of some subtly different compound that is a pig to produce but whose worth turns out to be negligible, is more than enough. What of them? Should they be written off? Should they be put under pressure to work long(er) hours?

The truth of the matter is too often that is exactly what happens. When people talk of the leaky pipeline (of course, usually of women, but these leaks apply whatever your gender) they imply that those who don’t stick around in the academic lab have ‘leaked out’ and that’s the end of them. Instead of seeing these students as a success story – students who will have, or at least should have, learned a wide range of skills which will fit them for diverse careers –they are merely regarded as failures who were a waste of space at the bench, time and money. We should instead, I believe, be celebrating those who leave our universities but who will be well-placed to speak up for science in Whitehall or to inspire future generations with a love of science in our schools. If we talk only in terms of students producing ‘world class science’ all we do is encourage a sense of failure in these individuals. Our academic world is competitive enough, we do not need to fuel fear and destroy confidence in this casual way.

Large groups, working insane hours. Is this what we want or need? Do we really see the PhD stage as no more than a sausage machine in the hands of a big boss with a big grant income? Can we not value the PhD years as a training ground for many different directions of travel, not all of which involve academia but many of which will contribute at least as much to society as we academics do, but in a multitude of diverse ways.

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One Response to Sausage Machines in the Academic Lab

  1. Anon says:

    I entirely agree that a PhD is a training qualification and so how can you expect or demand work class science – whatever that means.

    It should be about giving the individual access to the appropriate facilities, people and networks for them to prosper. It should not merely be about publishing as much as is possible. I put it another way, you talk of a sausage machine in the lab, I instead think of a sausage machine to publish too many papers and then the expectation of having some ridiculous number of papers at some point in your career. Some disciplines are much more guilty of this than others. Think chemistry synthesis versus biological science.
    I heard a quote from Sam Edwards that when looking at a collected volume of a journal he said he did not think that there were enough clever people or something along those lines. ( this is probably not word for word but you get the gist).

    I looked up the original tweet and was bemused that the poster had seen fit to compare elite Athletes to Scientists. In terms of the hours that they put in. When you actually look it up cyclists don’t spend 40 hours a week peddling, it’s nearer 20-30. The same applies to people throwing things or kicking ball shaped objects.

    Regardless of how many hours lab work a scientist does, from my own experience it’s hard to entirely switch off from ruminating on an idea or an experiment. This is something we perhaps may have in common with elite athletes. Although I recall Gazza in the dentists chair in Italia 90 and then maybe this is not the case for all “elite athletes”.

    What is clear is that big groups publishing over 40 papers a year must by their very nature be missing out on some of the nurturing and mentoring role in the push to produce more sausages, sorry papers.

    Less is more.

    But if only senior academics and grant panels would truly accept this and take time to read each other’s work and critically appraise it rather than accept a meaningless IF.

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