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?