In which I reflect on the mechanisms – and costs – of scientific success

What is the golden ticket to scientific success in an oversubscribed, under-funded field? In my previous post, I set out my thoughts and fears about the final year-and-a-bit of what is likely to be my final fellowship opportunity in biomedical research. Fellow UCL colleague Stephen Moss left a thoughtful comment at the dreg ends of the discussion which deserves further scrutiny:

As a fellow cell biologist I understand the challenge of getting those big hitting papers into the top journals, and you’re right, with 14 months remaining this is definitely the time to start pedaling faster. Having been through all this some 20 years ago, I’m afraid the truth is that for all but the luckiest or green-fingered, it is extremely difficult to produce the volume of data (never mind the quality) for those papers if you don’t work weekends.

I would never ask this of my own post-docs (I’d probably end up being charged with constructive dismissal) but they all know the importance of plain old graft. Many ask “why should we have to work like this when advancement in most professions is achievable on a 37.5 hour week?”. This is a fair point, but your peers and competitors who do weekends are setting the pace.

In my case, those 20 years ago, I was simply obsessive about science. I couldn’t get enough. And the culture in the lab was such that every Saturday and Sunday morning a group of 4 or 5 of us post-docs and PhD students would meet for coffee at a cafe near the British Museum, and then work full days, sometimes nights too. We all loved it, we were totally hyper. It doesn’t have to be like that forever, but for a few years charged by the energy of youth it might be worth it.

So what are we to make of this specimen of tough love?

Although it’s bound to be anecdotal, I can report that I behaved precisely as Stephen described for more than ten years when I was young – that was 20 years ago now for me too, so I assume I am about the same age as Stephen. In any case, during my PhD, which spanned six years, I worked 80-hour weeks. For this graft (which I also would also label as “obsessional”) I achieved six first-author papers. Only one of these was worthy of submitting to a journal like Nature, and needless to say it was not successful there or at other publications of its ilk. This had nothing to do with lack of hard work or passion, and everything to do with the sort of system I was working in and the culture of publication associated with it: the hypothesis was a wide-open question, so it wasn’t clear at the outset what sorts of things would fall out of it, and the topic – virology – was frankly not one favored by the top-tier journals, unless it had anything to do with AIDS, pandemics or bioterrorism. And anyway, my boss assured me this didn’t matter, as virologists felt that Journal of Virology was the best place for research to be seen – and so it was back in the early Nineties, when publishing in the top-tiers wasn’t quite as crucial for one’s career success.

In my first post-doc, in a high-power London lab in an even higher-powered London institute, I kept up the youthful work ethic. My colleagues and I weren’t into the breakfast scene, like Stephen’s; instead, we burned our candles at the other end and worked til 2 a.m. before flocking to the illegal speakeasies in Hanway Street for well-earned drinks, and watched the sun rise from night buses. But again, the project had its twists and turns; I was scooped badly at the last moment, and then my boss decided to move his lab to America, leaving me with some tough choices. Yet again those top-tier papers eluded me. In my next stint in Leiden, I was just as productive, paper-wise, working very efficiently in the 40-hour-a-week framework that the start-up company insisted on – wonderful results I’m very proud of, and yet another submission to Nature, but still no magic golden ticket.

So would it truly be worth my while to try to mimic the eighty hour week work culture of my youth in a last-ditch effort to land an academic position? My own experiences suggest that that correlation between crazy hours and top-tier success is tenuous at best. I know post-docs who’ve managed it during normal working hours, and they have been the first to admit that their secret was not turbo-gunner mentality, but sheer luck: the right hypothesis in the right system at the right time.

We can leave aside the obvious point that, at my current age, I’m not even sure I could pull it off with any degree of efficiency. When I think back to those mad PhD years, I recall that my boss was the same age that I am now (possibly a little younger). She worked 40-hour weeks and was tremendously successful: possibly in large part because she had eight young turbo-gunners doing the hard graft for her. Like her, at the start-up in Leiden, I supervised a dynamic team of eight people, and we were amazingly productive. At my age, I don’t think I’m designed to act like a 20-year-old any more.

Since I last posted, I had a meeting with my funding body. They regretfully informed me that there is no further funding available for career re-entry fellows, like me, who are too old to secure a standard fellowship; their next level up requires a tenured position, program grant success and corresponding authorship. Which even a super-human 25-year-old couldn’t score in 14 months, or even, I suspect, in the full four fellowship years.

So is this it? The death knell?

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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51 Responses to In which I reflect on the mechanisms – and costs – of scientific success

  1. Helen Lymburn says:

    Are you really surprised? Haven’t you noticed how difficult it has been to maintain a career in academic science over the years? It slowly became obvious to me and to my peers in the early ’90s while working the same obsessive hours as you, during our time as a PhD students. We received a letter from the grant body informing us the reason why we were not being given an increase in our living allowance. I remember it had the words ‘It is not in the interests of the nation…’
    Has anyone bothered to find out how many scientists we have in this country who are no longer working in science or a science-related position and why they are not doing so? How many are unemployed, stacking shelves, working as DIY handymen?
    I fear we are about to witness a decimation of science in much the same way we watched the decimation of heavy industry in the UK during the 1980s. I certainly do not want my kids looking for a career in science.
    It’s such a waste of talent, and as a nation we should be ashamed, ashamed of the promise of a fantastic, interesting career, a career our governments and universities have no intention of maintaining and ashamed of the heartbreak caused to those who are literally dumped.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It’s hard to notice gradual changes in culture when you leave one for a time. Before my academic career break, first-time postdocs in Britain were landing permanent positions with far less impressive CVs. A colleague of mine managed to finagle a tenured faculty spot in a top-tier institute with only one middle-impact report to his/her name. By the time I returned, about 8 years later, things were very different. I think it’s also clear that the recent recession has escalated the poor prognosis quite significantly.
    I don’t believe that science will be “decimated”, however. Those hardworking and lucky few will still fill all the slots, which are probably more than enough to keep knowledge advancing briskly. What might change is the number of hopeful trainees in the pipeline; but I’ve argued that this is probably a good thing for all concerned.

  3. Henry Gee says:

    What Stephen Moss’ postdocs fail to realize (‘Many ask “why should we have to work like this when advancement in most professions is achievable on a 37.5 hour week?’) is that ‘advancement in most professions’ requires the same near-messianic devotion and long hours as it does in science. Just ask any rising city slicker, lawyer, doctor, small-businessman, marketing maven, shopkeeper or advertising executive, all of whom know that 37.5 hours is the minimum. The same is true for artists and writers, for whom the idea of a time clock is utterly alien. The problem is that once one turns 40 one experiences a drastic decline in cognitive function, energy, testosterone and sheer mojo, and one is (hopefully) valued for one’s experience rather than for one’s energy, turning to the mentoring of others, from one’s own children (if any) to one’s junior colleagues. There are some rare individuals who seem to manage both. My former boss, the Late and Very Great John Maddox, was a great mentor and also capable of a phenomenal work rate even into his 70s, but I learned, after a while, that as he got older he would use his experience to pick and choose his battles with care; to marshal his energy (he was a world-champion catnapper); and to delegate.

  4. Mike Fowler says:

    Helen: It can be a dispiriting situation for those of us striving for tenure these days, but I think Jenny hits the nail on the head quite successfully.
    There are more people entering University than 10 or 20 years ago. Competition for the same number of permanent academic positions (or more, or fewer: anyone actually have numbers?) is greater. There’s a chance that the resultant selection pressure means a different sort of person ends up in those treasured positions, which will shape the scientific landscape in the future. But for now, the places are easily getting filled.
    I think it’s good that more people across society now have a scientific background. All those people who drop out of academia will have a chance to influence their new fields with the benefit of good scientific training.

  5. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Henry, are you and your manuscript handling editor colleagues working more than 40 hours a week? Many of the editors I know — at Nature and elsewhere — aren’t. I don’t believe it’s a universal success requirement in all professions, mostly because I observe the work habits, and pay packages/job prospects, of my non-scientist friends and draw those conclusions. Not all professionals are merchant bankers or brain surgeons — there does seem to be a comfortable tier in a lot of callings where you really can work hard, but not kill yourself, and still do all right for yourself.
    I don’t think scientific research was ever one of those, mind you. But my case has particular circumstances that are far outside the norm. I put in the time years ago, but because of my own choices and experiences, this wasn’t enough, now, to guarantee success. I accept that, but I still think it’s a shame because I do believe I have a lot to offer, and that I’ve already proven that I can lead a successful team. But them’s the breaks, eh?

  6. Darren Saunders says:

    Jenny, I’ve been trying to find the right comment for this and your previous post, possibly so difficult because your thoughts resonated so strongly. More likely, they made me remember the “elephant in the room” of my own career.
    Am I the only one on which the irony of the situation is not lost on. We are, for the most part (not always) being judged by people who would never have “made the cut” on the back of their CV’s at similar stage of career?

  7. Darren Saunders says:

    Sorry for poor grammar, typing on phone

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Darren, I was actually admiring your heroic effort not to end your sentence on a preposition! :-)
    Your comment about being judged by people who haven’t made the cut isn’t entirely straightforward, is it? Yes, the person who administers a grant may be a science drop-out. But ultimately, the grants are peer-reviewed by experts in the field. And in the case of recruitment, you’re being hired and judged by the faculty in the department. I have no doubt that in the current climate, judging people by how many top-tier papers they have is eminently sound — how else can one really weed out the vast superfluity of candidates in a timely fashion?
    I recognize this, even if I don’t like it.

  9. Tom Webb says:

    Nice post Jenny – the thoughts (frustrations?) you have articulated are, I believe, pretty much universal, certainly among more or less every scientist I’ve interacted with – all of us, towards the end of (yet another) short-term contract, have become resigned to the fact that this time, it’s the end of the road. A few of us have virtually made up our minds to try something less stressful, only to have the carrot of another short contract dangled above the path of least resistance (to mangle metaphors). And from time to time someone gets a lucky break and secures tenure, or something approaching it – partly on merit, of course, but also being in the right time and place, and at the right stage of personal and career development.
    Just to pick up on a couple of things from the comments. Mike, I agree completely that having people with good scientific training in jobs other than academic science is good, and that a lot of positive career choices are unfairly tainted with the pejorative term ‘dropping out’.
    Second, re. the possibility of career advance on a

  10. Darren Saunders says:

    Ha ha!
    I was actually thinking more of older faculty members or referees who made it through when the bar was a little “lower”? I think I can say this safely here as I highly doubt any of them read this forum (or even realise it exists), but I can think of several senior colleagues who would never have made it to those positions in the current climate. They have been able to maintain those positions, gaining access to funding etc beyond our reach and further entrenching themselves.
    Ok, maybe I’ll have another go at this when I can get on a real keyboard!

  11. Darren Saunders says:

    I’m not entirely in agreement on the time investment issue though. Yes, it gets harder and harder to maintain the workrate. But I don’t know anyone worth their salt in any profession of pursuit (sport, art etc included) who hasn’t worked really hard to get there or stay there.
    One really important thing I learnt from my last mentor was the need to work smarter and more efficiently. Having kids has only reinforced that

  12. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I think it’s possible to work very hard in shorter hours, and to work very inefficiently in twice that time. We’ve all seen the 14-hr-a-day postdocs spending a lot of time drinking tea and surfing, and the 8-hr-a-day mothers who skip lunch and scarcely leave the bench. To say that the former is “putting in the hours” more than the latter is to misunderstand that there are different work patterns, some more productive than others.

  13. Darren Saunders says:

    For sure, couldn’t agree more. Never confuse long hours with hard work.

  14. Stephen Moss says:

    Jenny, your own autobiographical account underscores the role that luck plays in defining a scientific career. If you’re a curiosity-driven scientist, as many of us are, it’s like turning over stones on the beach. Often you’ll turn a stone and find nothing, sometimes a few sand hoppers, but occasionally you’ll stumble upon something really exciting and unexpected. I believe there are very few scientists who, at PhD and first post-doc stage, can predict which stone to turn, let alone which beach to go to. This means, as some have pointed out, that certain individuals make it to tenured posts simply because they were in the right lab at the right time, or were the ‘scooper’ rather than the unfortunate ‘scoopee’.
    And as for those big hitting papers, and the power of journal editors such as Henry, their role need not be decisive and shouldn’t be exaggerated. In the past 10 years my Institute has made some 20 permanent academic appointments, and among those individuals’ publications I could aggregate the total number of Nature, Science and Cell papers on the fingers of one hand. Sure, you need some good papers to get a tenured post, but having sat on many interview panels the most important question we ask ourselves, is will this person get grants? Original ideas and a new niche to develop are crucial.

  15. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Stephen, good to hear that rumors of top-tier supremacy may have been greatly exaggerated. All the advice I’ve received recently from a number of professors I know hasn’t agreed with this position – but this could be because people are living in terror of the threatened 20-40% budget cuts in higher education, meaning that the next research assessment exercise could be more crucial for institutional survival than usual. So is it possible that you experiences accurately reflect business up until now, but that we might be in the midst of a transition?

  16. Henry Gee says:

    @Darren: ‘One really important thing I learnt from my last mentor was the need to work smarter and more efficiently. Having kids has only reinforced that’ – Amen to that!
    @Stephen – ‘And as for those big hitting papers, and the power of journal editors such as Henry, their role need not be decisive and shouldn’t be exaggerated’
    Quite. This is a message I try to get over when I’m on the stump, talking about Nature to audiences of scientists in labs and on campuses. Nature has a mystique by virtue of its perceived inaccessibility, but the editors are only human. I have heard, many times, the rumour that appeals on negative decisions made by Nature can never be overturned. This is quite untrue.

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    But it isn’t the journal editors deciding whether papers in Nature and other top-tier journals are considered essential CV-fodder: it’s the grant agencies and recruitment committees. I’m not sure how Henry saying that “there’s no mystique here, move along” is really a helpful argument, if powerful people actually believe in that mystique.

  18. Henry Gee says:

    Powerful People are concerned more with metrics than mystique. But as my commerce is with working scientists rather than Powerful People, I must do what I can.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Of course – I don’t think any sane person is blaming Nature editors for the activities inherent in preserving a 97% (or whatever it is) rejection rate. There is only so much space per issue. I find most of what I read in Nature, in my field, to be exciting and important. I guess the problem comes in with all the exciting, important papers that don’t make the cut and end up in venues of lesser mystique.

  20. Tom Webb says:

    One hopes that the increasing availability of paper-level metrics (access / downloads / citations of individual papers) may start to convince Powerful People of the merits of at least some work published in ‘lesser’ journals. One hopes, but is not especially hopeful…

  21. Stephen Curry says:

    I wonder at this obsession with publishing in Nature/Cell/Science (at least for life scientists). My impression is that there are many other journals out there that are considered of high-rank and that hiring committees look well beyond the IF of the journal. Paper citations are at least as important – a Nature paper with only a handful of citations will not weigh very heavily in an applicant’s favour. It is more important to publish work that people are seen to read – a better measure of its impact.
    Publication is important-it is a clear sign of productivity-but I wouldn’t get too hung up on journals.
    As for postdocs being judged by a crop of second-raters who sneaked into the system when thresholds were lower (to cruelly paraphrase Darren’s remark), I echo Jenny’s reply and would add that such people are not thriving, especially in the current climate. There are 2nd-raters in all walks of life and, in any case, a ‘permanent’ position, while it offers some release from the tyranny of short-term contracts, is by no means an escape from the pressure to perform.
    Oh, and another brace of great posts, Jenny.

  22. Tom Webb says:

    My personal experience certainly seems to support the idea that awards criteria are more subtle than we sometimes give them credit for. I got my R Soc fellowship with what I would consider to be a decent but not stellar publication record, with good papers (meaning, ones that I am proud of) but none in the very top-ranking journals. To quash some other common preconceptions of the RS, I also didn’t have an FRS as a referee, and have no Oxbridge connections. And I’m still half expecting to be stripped of it at any time…!

  23. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Again, I’m interested to see how belt-tightening in the future will affect assessment of scientists in all fields. Stephen, I think the C/S/N obsession might be peculiar to the life sciences – but it’s been around for a long time. The thing is that these journals are of impact 40-ish, whereas the next closest life science journal is 20-something (at least, the last time I checked). So there it’s more of a quantum leap than a continuum at the upper levels. From below 20 there is then a quite regular gradient down to the murky bottoms of lesser-journalhood. A lot of excellent specialist journals lurk between 5 and 7, but it doesn’t give me a feeling of confidence that most of my papers lie in that stratum.

  24. Stephen Moss says:

    The impact factor discussion feels like a well-trodden road. But I agree with Stephen C that whilst publishing in N/C/S can be helpful it is no assurance of success. Impact factors may be important to funding agencies but less so to appointment panels. I can think of several instances where we have not selected the application with N/C/S papers, but chosen the individual with a solid track record and good ideas.

  25. Jennifer Rohn says:

    That’s reassuring, Stephen(s). I hope that I encounter Powerful People who are equally enlightened.

  26. Paula Salgado says:

    Again, thank you Jenny for so eloquently describing your thoughts and feelings.
    As I put in the hours and really fight to make it, I keep thinking about what I heard a Professor reply when asked if there wasn’t an element of luck in his success. He simply said: “Luck always finds me working”. It has sort of become a motto to me.
    Not that I’m saying luck + hard work will do the trick. A lot of what has been said in the comments resonates true and if anything, I have more doubts than ever. But at this point, I’m still willing to put up a fight.
    Good luck with yours.

  27. Gareth Price says:

    I admire people who work exceptionally hard and feel bad for them when that hard work does not translate into success.
    That said, during my time as a PhD student and a postdoc (which is as far as my science career went) it was far from obvious to me that there is a strong correlation between how hard someone works – normally equated with hours put in – and how successful he or she is. I wonder whether this question has ever been studied to see if it is actually true. And how would you do it? If you ask someone how many hours he works, do you get an accurate answer?
    Furthermore, Peter Medawar once pointed out that the working long hours and working hard is not the same thing.

  28. Gareth Price says:

    I admire people who work exceptionally hard and feel bad for them when that hard work does not translate into success.
    That said, during my time as a PhD student and a postdoc (which is as far as my science career went) it was far from obvious to me that there is a strong correlation between how hard someone works – normally equated with hours put in – and how successful he or she is. I wonder whether this question has ever been studied to see if it is actually true. And how would you do it? If you ask someone how many hours he works, do you get an accurate answer?
    Furthermore, Peter Medawar once pointed out that the working long hours and working hard is not the same thing.

  29. Gareth Price says:

    I admire people who work exceptionally hard and feel bad for them when that hard work does not translate into success.
    That said, during my time as a PhD student and a postdoc (which is as far as my science career went) it was far from obvious to me that there is a strong correlation between how hard someone works – normally equated with hours put in – and how successful he or she is. I wonder whether this question has ever been studied to see if it is actually true. And how would you do it? If you ask someone how many hours he works, do you get an accurate answer?
    Furthermore, Peter Medawar once pointed out that the working long hours and working hard is not the same thing.

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    On average, I am sure that working hard helps. I am still very aware, however, of a large number of my colleagues who didn’t make it who were working as hard or harder than the ones that did. This is not a statistical argument, but it does show that we certainly are not dealing with a universal truth here. I, too, would love to see some numbers – but agree with Medawar (is he the bloke my building is named after, BTW?) that long hours cannot be considered a reliable measure.

  31. Frank Norman says:

    Jenny – It depends what your building is called! If it is called “The Peter Medawar building”, then I would hazard a guess that he is.
    He was at UCL 1951-62 before becoming Director of NIMR in 1962. See Nobel Prize website for more.

  32. Richard P. Grant says:

    “mathematical analysis of the changes of shape of organisms”
    sounds right up your street, Jenny.

  33. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Well, Peter Medawar better bloody well sent me some good vibes, if he’s haunting the place.

  34. Henry Gee says:

    Hard work is just one of three things you need to succeed. The others are luck, and the ability to pick a project that’s worth doing (in that people will be interested in it and cite it) When I did my Phd I had the first two but not the third, which is one reason why I left research.

  35. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I would venture to say that the third item also involves a bit of luck, because it’s not always clear what will be fashionable by the time you are ready to publish.
    Well, research’s loss is certainly publishing’s gain in your case.

  36. Eva Amsen says:

    When I was driving from Albuquerque to Taos a few weeks ago, there was an interview with Brian May on NPR, and of course he was being asked about his PhD thesis (of which Terri Gross read the title wrong, but I probably just spelled her name wrong, so let’s overlook that.) He pointed out that it was very abnormal to be able to pick up a thesis topic after several decades and then still be able to write about it, but that he was lucky that his topic (dust clouds in space) went out of fashion in the time he was away making music. Anything else, and he would have been scooped in the mean time. (And apparently it was okay again now to write about the topic, but I didn’t quite understand why. Had to do with exoplanets.)
    So the luck of the draw in research topics works in all kinds of directions, I suppose.

  37. Henry Gee says:

    Well, research’s loss is certainly publishing’s gain in your case
    blushes
    Er … I’m not sure whether your view would be shared by the thousands of authors whose papers I’ve rejected…

  38. Alejandro Correa says:

    I’m glad you have the courage to say that.
    Like my great manuscript was published as a paperback (in a great editorial), ¿What do you think?.
    At the end the winner is…..ehem……. me!

  39. Alejandro Correa says:

    If you will read here is the link:
    Biological similarities between chilean Tapaculos

  40. Alejandro Correa says:

    ………and that I’ve never bought an iPhone, Henry, that do you think?

  41. Alejandro Correa says:

    Oh my god (Jehova), sorry, Henry, I’m wrong, I take back everything I said, in reality according to the letter you sent me in 2004, long ago, did not accept my article in Nature that was very extensive, I forgot.
    The End.

  42. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Well, as long as we’ve cleared that up.

  43. Jesús Purroy says:

    The research job pyramid is very flat, as many of us have experienced, and there are just too few jobs at the top. It is still possible to find good science jobs outside of academia, once you overcome the feeling of dropping out of something. I did that five years ago, after several postdocs. Now I am working harder than ever, and also get a lot more satisfaction from my work. I am director for research and innovation at the Barcelona Science Park, and I am a lot better at this than I ever was at the bench – or so the reviews say. I bet that in a couple of years you’ll be having much more fun than now.

  44. Alejandro Correa says:

    Jenny – that it is what you say?

  45. Alejandro Correa says:

    Hi Jesús – that’s good for you. I too have done the same, I had to do other work, is very little work of biologist here in Chile, good chilean biologists here or do other things or go to another country to work on anything.

  46. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Jesus, many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I believe that life outside of research can be better for many people, but I took a four-year break doing non-research science-related jobs a few years back and so far, I prefer research. The jobs outside were fun and challenging, but I just didn’t get the same kick from it — and the thought of leaving research again still makes me feel that same bleakness I felt when I had to leave the first time.
    Sometimes you have to listen to your gut.

  47. Jesús Purroy says:

    Jenny, you seem to be well positioned for a second career in science communication, and probably many other things too. The jobs you took during your four year stint outside of research were only a small sample of what is out there. From what I read your gut tells you that what has not happened in years will not happen in months, so you might as well start reassessing what you like to do, what you can do and what you are good at – which are not necessarily the same things. Please ignore unsolicited advice at your discretion.
    This editorial in Science helped me take the plunge: (http://www.scripps.edu/services/sof/about/Science308-717.pdf)

  48. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Jesus. I do hope you’re wrong, though.

  49. Jesús Purroy says:

    I forgot to wish you good luck. You deserve it, if only for your honesty.

  50. Alastair Gittner says:

    I’m sorry I am a later entrant to this thread, having just found your blog. I feel sad that 17 years after I had to make a similar decision the situation still has not been improved.  You seem more successful at science than I was, as I tried and ultimately failed to get a PhD which limited the options for me.
    Instead I made the decision to go into science teaching in secondary school.  I have never regretted the decision and though I miss the hands on creativitiy of research I love still being to be able to immerse myself in science (albeit at a lower level) every day.

  51. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for your comment, Alastair. I am glad you found a good place to realize your potential, and it is perhaps a blessing that this decision happened early on in your career, when all things are more flexible. For a 40-something post-doc, I suspect it will be more of a challenge. Keep your fingers crossed for me!