In which I question the 24/7 lab mentality

Is there a strong correlation between the number of hours you are physically present in a lab and the pace and success of your project?

The furore over Nature’s 24/7 lab feature, published a few weeks ago, is still sending out the occasional ripple. In case you missed it, the 31 August issue of the journal featured three pieces: a beautifully written account of Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa’s high-powered, workaholic lab at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore by journalist Heidi Ledford; the opposing viewpoint for the importance of work/life balance, presented in the first person by Julie Overbaugh, a successful group leader at the Fred Hutchison in Seattle; and an editorial, which seemed, on balance, to come down largely in favor of the turbo-gunner approach. Indeed, it finishes with the rather ominous observation: “As research funding declines in many countries, science will intensify. Anyone lacking the inner intellectual drive and a capacity for relentless focus to get to the heart of the way the world works should stay away.”

All of you have probably known about labs like Quiñones-Hinojosa’s – especially if you’ve spent time in any prestigious research hub in America. And some of you may have lived the 24/7 lab lifestyle yourself at some point in your career.

I, personally, have been there. But rather ironically, my 24/7 epoch – which stretched over the five and half years I was a PhD student in Seattle – happened in the lab of the aforementioned Julie Overbaugh herself. Hers was a relatively new lab at the time, and I ended up being the first PhD student to graduate from her group. My work ethic wasn’t precisely 24/7, but I would routinely work 12-14 hour days on the weekdays, and 8-10 each weekend day: never fewer than 80 hours a week, and sometimes approaching 90 or 100. This was the epoch in which I single-handedly cloned and sequenced more than a megabase of DNA, the old-fashioned manual way, with radioactive sulfur and hand-poured gels, and typed the results in manually at the computer each morning until the G, C, A, and T keys were visibly worn.

You could find me in the lab at six in the morning, or at midnight, or putting in a few hours on Christmas day. I once set off the intruder alert alarm in the Regional Primate Center after coming in from clubbing to check on some cell cultures at 3 AM – the goth clothes I was wearing at the time didn’t seem to reassure the security guard that I was actually an authorized PhD student. I’d ride those long hours on an adrenalin-fuelled buzz that only a 20-something year old kid could carry off for long periods of time, buffered through the failures by sporadic bright sparks of promising data and a constant stream of incredibly loud grunge or indie music.

It is important to stress that all of this behavior was entirely self-imposed. Julie worked normal hours and repeatedly stressed that we – the Overbabes, as we called ourselves back then – could all do as we liked. Some in her lab worked normal hours, and some worked longer. I think we were all a little scared of Julie: someone who applies no pressure is a pressure of its own. But I think the fact that it wasn’t imposed or expected is very important. Nobody has a right to treat a worker like a slave – something I think that some lab heads forget. “That’s how we did it in my day” is no justification.

If you look at my track record, you’ll see that my 24/7 PhD stint bought me four first-author papers, two first-author reviews and two co-authorships. Impressive, perhaps, until you factor in that I didn’t get my first paper out until my fourth year. In many projects, you have to labor for years to get a system up and running; the 24/7 thing isn’t necessarily going to strike gold during your typical post-doctoral short-term contract span. And with age, inevitably, comes the weakness of the flesh. Nowadays, I get tired, I get hungry; I can’t force myself to work the long hours I used to do with such ease. As I approach middle age, and life starts to feel finite, I find that spending time with my loved ones is more important than cranking out so many papers that I never get to see them.

And I think Julie is right about the creativity angle: I get scientific ideas when I’m running in the woods, or swimming laps, or lying sprawled on a sunny blanket in the weekend garden staring at the clouds. Sometimes in the lab or at my computer, I feel a block that won’t ease until I step away from the problem. I abandoned the 24/7 ethic completely from my second post-doc onwards (I’m on only about 50-60 hours now, if you include the time I spend writing papers and reading the literature at home), but my publication record remains as strong as it was at the outset, and some of the work I’m most proud of happened in a 9-to-5 industry culture.

Personally, although I’m glad Nature gave someone like Julie a platform to voice an opinion that many of us feel is obvious, I’m a little bit disappointed that its editorial team decided to side with the sweatshop mentality. Judging by the comment threads on the three pieces, most readers were equally disappointed. Quantity is seldom quality in science, and there are many different styles and diverse approaches in the quest for knowledge. The sleep-in-the-lab scientific stereotype is getting a little stale. As a community, shouldn’t we be moving beyond all that?

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Nostalgia, Scientific thinking, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to In which I question the 24/7 lab mentality

  1. chall says:

    I was surprised that there was not more mentioning/commenting about the “wet-lab output” and the number of people in the lab*, since to me it seemed like not everyone (even if they worked 24/7) would get those coveted first author papers. (Which may or may not be obvious, since after all – there are no guarentees….)

    As for your story Jenny, I really like “But I think the fact that it wasn’t imposed or expected is very important.” At least for me, the selfimposed 24/7 at times worked better than if someone would tell me to come in all the time…

    *as a sign of “the 24/7 lab is much more productive” since I wonder the ratio of the papers vs the postdocs(grad students) as well as time spent over the years. I personally was competely happy with my first author papers after working lotslotslots for a number of years. However, I know of post docs who do work plenty years and plenty time and still get little output…. but they are “in the middle of authors” on high end papers. I still don’t know if I think that is “worth” the effort?!

  2. Yes, the publication record as a ratio didn’t seem that impressive to me either. But you have to ask yourself: is Nature recommending that we be the slaves, or actually, be the slave-drivers? I think, the latter: it doesn’t matter if not all your people produce, as long as many of them do – you’ll still come up looking very successful. As with so many things in the scientific career, the lab head takes the lion’s share of all the benefits and glory. Actually, I respect someone like Quiñones-Hinojosa more than I would a slave-driver who didn’t also put in the long hours right along with his/her team. At least he’s not being hypocritical.

  3. @OmicsScience says:

    Thanks for this post Jennifer.
    People have different limits with respect to how many hours they can work without losing productivity. But do you think you would still have this publication record without the 80-100 hours a week during your early career?

  4. Hi Omics – certainly I would have had fewer papers in the early days if I’d worked fewer hours, because the manual sequencing was what was driving the results. But would that have mattered? I don’t actually think so. When I started my first postdoc, I was surrounded by people (especially the Brits, with their shorter PhD durations) who has far fewer papers, but it didn’t seem to make a difference to who’d got hired as a postdoc or who got fellowships or, indeed, who is a successful group leader today. I think at the beginning, your papers help your next step, but you only need a certain threshold. Later, older papers don’t seem to matter as much: does anyone care now that I had 4 first author papers in 1994-1997 in a field I no longer occupy? I doubt it. And as I mentioned, my productivity as measured in papers and fellowship awards doesn’t seem to correlate well with how many hours I was working in each particular stint.

  5. Thankyou! I was hoping that you would write about this, because you always give such lucid and careful responses to issues that make me go all incoherent with annoyance. I was seething for days about that editorial conclusion you quote, for instance:

    “Anyone lacking the inner intellectual drive and a capacity for relentless focus to get to the heart of the way the world works should stay away.”

    Ugh, it still gets my hackles up. But your point is still the most important one – there is a crucial difference between choosing to make big sacrifices, and being expected to make them.

  6. The more I think about this, the more I’d love to see some hard data on time spent in lab vs number of papers. Somebody must have looked at this but a quick search doesn’t bring up much.

  7. ricardipus says:

    A couple of anecdotes for you:

    1) I worked with a postdoc, who had a very close friend in Vancouver suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. She was working as a postdoc at the time. Not only did she have a successful lab career, but I was also told published a novel (imagine!) during that stint – all while unable to work for more than a few hours at a time. How? Incredible planning and efficient time management.

    2) A graduate student in the lab down the hall was definitely in the 24/7 mode… working Christmas day, taking time off with his parents for lunch at the nearby Red Lobster simply because, well, it was nearby (and thus quick to get back to the lab). This guy developed a reputation as a superstar, for beautiful experiments and data. How? Those of us in the know (and I don’t think his supervisor ever twigged to this) knew that he would simply dispose of experiments that didn’t work, and try again. His success was not in being particularly good, or efficient, in the use of his time, but in putting in way more hours than he really needed to in order to have time to dump the fails and keep the successes.

    I’m not sure what my point here is, other than that it really has a lot more to do with being organized than it does with putting in stupid amounts of time. I have never worked 80-hour weeks. Maybe if I did, I’d be a superstar PI, who knows? Doesn’t seem to have damaged my career much, though.

  8. ricardipus says:

    And as for hours worked to number of papers… another amusing statistic is number of papers per funding dollar. That can be quite revealing in itself (but more for PIs than postdocs and students, of course).

  9. I think there can be very different cultural attitudes to this in different fields. I spent a few years in the wet lab environment and found the attitude to working hours rather different to that in my current field, where where the deviation from the 9-5 is lesser. Which is not to say that we don’t put the hours in outside, but there isn’t the hot housing that seems to go on in lab sciences. One problem is that wet lab stuff requires you to be physically present, and experiments do not respect your desire to live a ‘normal’ life. (Feeding cell cultures on New Year’s Day? Been there, done that, got the lab coat). These days I can do a certain amount of work (aka pondering) away from the office, so it doesn’t feel quite so relentless.

    I think that working hours are also very much tied in with how knowledge generation is perceived and how our ‘performance’ is assessed. As a basic scientist I was aware that someone else publishing on a closely related topic to you was a threat – “Damn, they got there first. My efforts are wasted.” In epidemiology, although there is still competition, because we spend more time debating the validity of evidence it can be considered a good thing if someone publishes the same result as you, as it gives your own findings greater reliability. Of course, we’d all still like to get there first, but the difference lies in how one perceives ‘novel insights’. Some of this perception difference reflects intractable differences in disciplines, but I do think some of it is caused by the general culture and attitudes of certain fields. These differences perpetuate in a loop from investigators to funding bodies and back again.

    Academic life undoubtedly requires an intellectual commitment beyond the usual office hours. In a healthy environment this can be the reading of papers in front of crappy tv, the moment of insight that comes over breakfast, the habit of linking random things back to your research questions (to the bewilderment of friends and family). But the imperative that “Anyone lacking the inner intellectual drive and a capacity for relentless focus to get to the heart of the way the world works should stay away” implies an all-consuming pursuit that is little good for anyone.

  10. SteveS says:

    I’m another of those who has never worked in (or self-imposed) a 24/7 culture (and also wonder where I would be today if I had). I group the attitude together with the one that says “you must work abroad (preferably the US) if you want to be successful”. I’ve always been happy enough in the UK thanks very much. I wouldn’t call myself successful yet but I also wouldn’t say its too late.

    Has anyone else observed the version of the 24/7 boss that goes around at 5.15pm and moans that people have gone home (irrespective of the time they arrived). So the worker who arrives as 7am and leaves at 4.30 is criticised whilst the one that stays until 8pm (usually playing solitaire) is ok.

    I sometimes wish I had the perceptiveness to know when the advice I get from the powers that be is really for my own benefit or whether its for the sole benefit of the PI – as has been mentioned, successful PIs may well often be the ones that treat their team as the means to further their own scientific career with not much thought as to the needs and careers of the individual members.

    OK, rant over – thanks for listening.

  11. Steve – well, it’s definitely true in my experience that people working earlier shifts are perceived as lazier than those working later shifts. Of course if no one sees you coming in at 5 AM, they can’t know you’ve been there twelve hours if you leave at 5PM. Also, there is something more macho about working after sunset – I have no idea why but it’s part of the glamor. (Whereas, in my case at least, rising super earlier is far more physically demanding – so there’s no rhyme or reason to it).

    NormallyD, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I like your last paragraph observation about how ‘dedication’ takes many forms, and is not necessarily correlated with your physical presence inside a lab.

    Ricardipus, amazing anecdote about the researcher with CFS. And very much reinforces the point that time spent in a lab may not correlate with output.

  12. Further thoughts on the requirement of wet lab sciences for one to be physically present in order to progress… what proportion of time spent in the lab is devoted to tasks which could be automated if technology existed/was available? Jenny’s manual sequencing outputs are impressive, and deserve credit, but I’m sure her contribution to science didn’t diminished when such processes became automated – new technologies allow us to spend less time on the slog and more on the ‘science bit’.

    My current role still requires a certain amount of grind (data cleaning always takes a lot longer than one anticipates) but it’s at an acceptable level with respect to proportion of my time spent, and it’s a process which does require a certain amount of intelligent thought which I’m not sure could ever be 100% automated.

    I’m not saying that the more ‘mindless’ tasks (refeeding stacks and stacks of cell culture plates) should be farmed out so that ‘proper scientists’ don’t have to spend time on them. There is something to be learned from these processes, and of course they’re a means to an end. But to judge a scientist on his or her hours put in, with no accounting for what proportion of those hours are slog and what is innovation, is silly. This balance varies from field to field and some of it is non-negotiable, but expectations from PIs of hardcore presenteeism regardless of how that time is spent are, are perhaps not the best way to go about things.

  13. Apologies – I really should have proof read that post (or not posted at this time in the afternoon!)

  14. Ian the EM Guy says:

    There is a good chance that working hard is NOT working well. I’m sure many 24/7 types work both hard and well, but I’ve certainly known plenty, a couple in this building spring to mind, who work hard but are certainly guilty of “more haste less speed” in their approach.

    As with all things the circumstance is crucial. If you are on a “big push” that will get you over a threshold, get the final data for a paper, address referees coments, etc, then working long hours and working hard can be a wise move.

    I don’t think it is wise to do it long term though. I also find that even if I wanted to do it these days, I can’t. I don’t live in London where I work, so working late or early when it takes over an hour to get to work isn’t going to happen, and neither is working at the weekend. Added to which I have a lovely wife and two lovely children that I even gave up playing rugby to spend more time with. I’ll be honest with you, I’d give up working long hours in the lab well before I’d give up playing God’s own game (if God existed to even have a game, which he doesn’t, but that’s besides the point.) As a student in Leeds however, I lived 4 mins walk from the dep’t, so could easily go home for dinner then back into the lab, and didn’t mind working late as and when required. Towards the end of my PhD I needed a bit of kit that was heavily booked. the experiments were quick but I needed to get the results on the equipment fresh and soon. Consequently I did a few 24 hour shifts of other lab work in the day, then these special experiments in the night, home for breakfast and a shower and back into the lab again. Also there was a pub over the road from the dep’t, and this always seemed to have at least one table of colleagues there with our timers on the table next to our pints so we could go back in and change a solution when req’d etc. So, I did the shifts when I needed to. I think everyone does it at some point, but I’m pretty certain that now I am more experienced than I was as a student I could get the work I did then in long hours done in fairly standard hours now.

    I think the attitude should be that as long as the project is progresing and the work is getting done, who cares how long people are working, after all nobody writes in the Methods section of their paper how long stuff took them do they?

    I also think Jenny makes a great point “someone who applies no pressure is a pressure of its own”. There is a difference between having a work ethic; being driven by your desire to work for the team, or a good boss, not to let anyone down and to put in the effort, where the pressure comes from yourself, and external pressure of feeling like you are being judged simply for the hours you are working. It saddens me to think that perhaps for example certain labs were under-represented at our Summer Department picnic because they maybe felt obliged to stay in their labs and work instead, seeing as their PIs weren’t going to the picnic either.

    Finally, I have been reading “Lyrical Ballads” recently and Wordsworth had his own take on the matter in his two poems “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned”. Well worth a read:

    “The eye–it cannot choose but see;
    We cannot bid the ear be still;
    Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
    Against or with our will.

    “Nor less I deem that there are Powers
    Which of themselves our minds impress;
    That we can feed this mind of ours
    In a wise passiveness.”

    Even when you’re not “at work” you can still be receptive to ideas that may pop into your head, and make experimental plans and strategies.

    Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
    Come, hear the woodland linnet,
    How sweet his music! on my life,
    There’s more of wisdom in it.

    Sometimes, you’ve just got to step back from it, or you won’t see teh wood for the trees.

  15. I think the one about

    ‘are you perceived as lazier working early or late shifts?’

    – probably depends on the PI and their own late/early habit. I have worked with several Professors (all seriously early starters) whose perception of their postdocs and students (and junior PIs and Faculty, come to that) was largely based on people’s start time. If you were in by 8 am, these guys thought you were a grafter. Conversely, if you weren’t there by 9.30 am, you were a waster. This was pretty independent of when people left.

  16. Pingback: The 24/7 lab: in praise of time out | Code for Life

  17. Grant says:

    I started to reply and wound up writing a short blog post:

    Key point: there’s a place for time out, too. Sometimes the more productive thing to do if you’re “stuck” on something is to walk away from it for a bit. Small and obvious point I know, but the 24/7 lab concept needs to have this it somewhere too, or people will just end up battling unnecessarily, when I pause would make for better productivity overall – ?

  18. Steve Caplan says:

    Since reading this and now having a few moments to make a few points, I see that a huge thread has developed! Definitely a topic of much interest to scientists.

    First, I must admit my ignorance of the editorials Jenny linked–it’s my fault for missing them, but I see it as a casualty of the online journal system–as I no longer see any paper journals, so the editorials and news is the first thing I miss.

    Having gone through a remarkably similar experience as Jenny in my Ph.D., and later as a post-doc with a a baby and later baby + toddler, my own outlook is as follows–and this is something that I say to every new student who wants to rotate in my lab:

    It’s NOT 24/7 and long hours that I am looking for in a potential student (or post-doc)–but dedication and commitment. Science needs to be “a way of life”–not a 9-5 job that one does, goes home, and forgets about until the next morning. Now dedication can come in a variety of ways, and can definitely include stints of particularly long hours for a period of time as a student or post-doc. This is okay, and useful to get a lot done. But I don’t think it should be the long-term strategy for success. It will lead to “burn-out,” loss of creativity and loss of interest in the long run.

    How many of us know lawyers, businessmen, police officers whose family and private lives have been wrecked by incessant workaholic behavior? The same is true for science. I don’t recommend this.

    Having said that, I tell students that they need to use their time wisely–be efficient. I recommend that they use their weekends primarily to set things up for the following week. For example, to spend 20 min. in the lab to set up tissue culture on Sunday so that Monday can be a worthwhile experimental day. To pluck bacterial colonies to grow and have on Monday. And so on.

    At the same time, experimental scientists can’t really move forward very quickly working 6 hour days, so there obviously has to be a balance. But the key for me is engagement. Students who go home on the weekend and come back to me and say, “You know, I was thinking about this idea…”. I also stress to my students that I don’t watch when they come and go, and am not interested in policing. I want people who are self-motivated and dedicated and that the issue of time in the lab should be something that I basically don’t want to hear about. Interestingly enough, in my 8 years in this position, I have never had to deal with any issues of time in the lab or vacations–although I have told a student once to go home earlier and get more sleep.

    As a post-doc, I worked largely from 8 am to 6 pm in the lab. True, I did a lot of reading/e-mails etc. at night when my kids were in bed, but that was sufficient to get a lot done. There was a period where I would come back to the lab to do live imaging experiments from 10-1 am for 3 months or so, but being temporary with a specific goal, this worked for me.

    As a PI, I rarely go to the lab/office on weekends, but thinking about everyone’s projects–unless I am really on vacation–is something I do (as Jenny noted) while exercising, having dinner (yes, you can when your partner is a scientist too), walking, driving.

    So I guess I come down with the side of the “opposing viewpoint” against the 24/7 culture.

    ps. don’t tell anyone…

  19. stephenemoss says:

    Seems as though quite a few of us went through a 24/7 workaholic phase at some point. For me it was during my post-doc at what was the ICRF (now CRUK). I was never under any pressure to do so, but there are times when youthful energy and an almost obsessive desire to generate data provide the necessary fuel. And looking back, the string of papers that emerged as a result definitely led me straight into my first academic post.

    But these days I work like Steve C, quite often from home, and with more time spent thinking. I can get a good deal of mental editing of papers or grants done while just walking the dog, so my time is used differently. As for my own PhD students and post-docs, I would never insist or even suggest they work anything other than the hours they want to. And I would like to think that the benefits and glory are properly shared among all those who contribute to the work.

  20. Stephen, your comments makes me realize I need to clarify one of my comments. I didn’t mean to imply that a successful junior researcher wouldn’t take his/her share of the glory and benefits with the lab head. But what I’ve observed about some sweatshop labs is that people are put on many, diverse angles, only some of which are going to bear fruit. For every Nature paper project, there may be five or six students and postdocs whose work – through no fault of their own – doesn’t end up with a publishable story. So the net benefit for the lab head of having many, many 24/7 people working for them might seem clear – but some of the cogs in the machine on average may end up with nothing. But their presence *did* benefit the lab head, because he/she needed someone to try out that ultimately doomed angle – and there will still be great papers from the other angles that did work to keep their empire afloat. Does that make sense?

  21. Ian the EM Guy says:

    “Science needs to be “a way of life”–not a 9-5 job that one does, goes home, and forgets about until the next morning.”

    Now that I disagree with. Science is a job like any other. When my wife asks me how my day was I say “Ok” or “It was a pain”. I don’t go in to details because I don’t want to talk about it. Work is work and home is home. Sure sometimes I’ll think about work at home, and sometimes I’ll do a bit of work from home, but science is no more a “way of life” than if I were a plumber. This doesn’t mean that dedication or commitment is any less, just that science is not the priority when I’m away from the lab.

  22. I would like to throw in another anecdote from my lab. Our lab tends to work long hours, although not through any pressure from the supervisor, other than getting infected with their enthusiasm.
    I would like to distinguish between working long hours and working late.
    It really annoys me when I’m having a long day , and see someone turn up at just after midday, and then gets into a “who works harder” contest at 8pm when all I want to do is get my stuff finished up and go home.
    I got so annoyed that I made this xtranormal video (language NSFW)

  23. Ian, with regard to you leaving science in the lab each day, I guess Steve might rebut this comment by saying that he’s a group leader, and that’s what it takes to be one.

  24. Stephen Moss says:

    Jenny – you are absolutely right. I think a lot of scientists, at all levels, find it impossible to switch off when we go home, simply because science is so damned interesting. That’s not to say there are times when I don’t stop thinking about science – there are plenty of family distractions at home – but when I’m undisturbed I almost invariably find myself returning to science, perhaps mentally drafting a paper, working up some new jokes for a talk, puzzling over an odd result etc.

  25. (I was talking about Steve Caplan, but looks like I’ve pegged two Steves with one stone) 🙂

  26. Steve Caplan says:

    Dear Ian the EM Guy,

    Thank you for your application and interest in my laboratory. Unfortunately, I will not be able to offer you a position. There are generally many more applicants than we can accommodate, so the selection process can be disappointing to some applicants. Best of luck in finding a suitable position.

    Seriously, I do think it depends upon an individual’s aspirations. To be clear, I am speaking in generalities now, and one can consider these positions in my own lab. A technician’s post is very different than that of a student or post-doc. In this case, a technician is not expected to work outside a defined time in her/his contract, and there is no requirement for thinking, reading or doing anything at home. And there can still be 100% on the job dedication in the lab.

    However, in the case of aspiring students and post-docs (and certainly group leaders), a “turn-on/turn-off” attitude after an 8 hour day will not be sufficient to really thrive. Sure, many Ph.D. degrees are being awarded to people who work this way, but they will not be able to climb the ladder. Now, not everyone has to climb the ladder, that’s fine too. But I prefer to accept into my laboratory those who aspire and show enthusiasm–not 24/7 enthusiasm, but a curiosity and interest to understand the natural world.

    When I talk to students who are about to begin a Ph.D., I like to emphasize that they are in the process of becoming professionals. That means acting professional–being able to overcome certain obstacles, personal issues and other problems to stay focused and continue to thrive. Many do not really understand this, as they have been coddled in undergraduate studies, allowing exceptions to deadlines for a variety of excuses etc. I tell them that they need to compare themselves to symphony orchestra players or pro athletes going into a game–you can’t let some little personal issues allow your clarinet to play off key, or drop the football in a key situation–because of whatever issues you have. The conductor or coach wouldn’t tolerate it.

    Anyway-that’s my belated perspective from this side of the pond.

  27. cromercrox says:

    I feel rather out of things here, as for my graduate work I was in a research group of one (1) with a supervisor who neither knew nor cared what I was doing. I think I’d have appreciated a mentor to help me structure my time and determine my attitude towards it. The result was I approached my work like an asteroid on imminent collision with the Earth, working so hard that I los all sense of time, went seriously off the rails and had to take time out before starting again. It wasn’t as if the nature of my work forced me into a certain pattern. You can work on fossils when you want. They won’t die if you don’t feed them. Now I am an editor with Your Favourite Professional Science Weekly Beginning With N, and also something of a veteran at the game, I think that a great deal can be achieved with minimal apparent effort by using your time effectively, mainly by making decisions quickly rather than haverin over them waitin for more information to come in that almost certainly won’t. Oh, and by avoiding management-type meetings whever possible – an occupation for which the phrase ‘futile cycle’ was coined.

  28. Ian the EM Guy says:

    “However, in the case of aspiring students and post-docs (and certainly group leaders), a “turn-on/turn-off” attitude after an 8 hour day will not be sufficient to really thrive.”

    I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree about that one then. As I have said, I put in the hours as a student, but after that I did three postdocs pretty sucessfully (if I say so myself 😉 not necessarily working a 9-5 every day, but without science being any more a way of life that any other job would be. Maybe it’s just me, but I am quite able to “compartmentalise” my life without too much leakage over the boundaries, when I’m at home or out and about I don’t want to think about work, and when I’m at work the stresses of how much mess the builders are making in my home are left behind me. Now I can’t comment categorically about being a group leader as I’ve never been one, but I’m confident that I could have done it had I tried. Would I have won a Nobel prize? Probably not, but there you go.

    “I tell them that they need to compare themselves to symphony orchestra players or pro athletes going into a game–you can’t let some little personal issues allow your clarinet to play off key, or drop the football in a key situation–because of whatever issues you have. The conductor or coach wouldn’t tolerate it.”

    It’s interesting you use this analogy. Players of sport ofetn talk about having a laugh and a joke and relaxing off the pitch but “when you cross the white line you switch on”. Currently there is a major furore over the extra curricular activities of England’s rugby players at the World Cup in New Zealand. the day after a match a bunch of them went bungee jumping etc, and a few of them went to the pub and had a few beers. The press have gone wild with an attitude of “How could they do this in the middle of a World Cup? They should be focussed, dedicated, preparing for the next game, they should live for teh game.” The management on the other hand have adopted a different and dare I say it enlightened view. “The players need to relax, get away from the game and have a bit of fun. If they want to go out and enjoy themselves they can. If they don’t want to go out they don’t have to.” Therefore players who want to get away and forget the game can, and others like Jonny Wilkinson (and if ever there was a man that would be a 24/7 lab worker it is he) can go out on the field and practise a bit more. A horses for courses attitude that I think is applicable here. It seems that if we are going to say: “Nobody should be under pressure to work in a 24/7 stylee” then surely we should also be saying “You don’t have to live for science, in fact you don’t even have to like it. As long as you get the work done (please note the work involves assesing results, having ideas, planning what next etc, not just benchwork) then that’s fine.”

  29. I must say I have a lot of sympathy with Ian’s arguments. As some of you may know, there is a lot on my plate outside of the lab, and when I’m not in the lab I’m usually writing or doing any number of other small projects, or fulfilling speaking engagements, or whatever. These are all science-related, but not to my specific project. I do spend a bit of time outside the lab reading or working on presentations for my project, but there are many evenings when I don’t think about it at all. This doesn’t mean I’m not raring to go when I get in the next morning, and I don’t consider that I’m handicapped by this approach. One could always argue that there’s no “control 24/7 Jenny” who would have been a Nobel laureate by now – we can’t ever truly know. But while I was a group leader in industry (and penning my first novel in the evenings and on weekends), we were terribly productive, both with publications and with patents. I think it is eminently possible to both be successful and switch entirely off – maybe not for everyone, and in all situations, but I’ve seen people make it work. Bottom line, we should be judged on our output, not on the superficial evidence of our commitment and passion.

  30. Erika Cule says:

    We (as beginning PhD students) were explicitly informed that A PhD is not a 9-to-5 at the start of our doctoral studies. This information came from the guide to the rights and responsibilities of graduate students, and not from my supervisor, who has a more flexible approach.

    As a student I have seen a mix of working patterns among my peers and seniors. As others have said, the mentality does differ by discipline. For example my work (and that of others in the group I am in) does not require a physical presence, unlike a wet lab.

  31. Steve Caplan says:


    First, let me reiterate that I was speaking in generalities, so I am well aware that what works for some doesn’t for others. One can’t argue with success, and since your approach has served you well, there’s nothing more to say. However, my personal viewpoint is that you are more on the exception side rather than the rule side.

    I also want to point out that my desire to see scientists as committed and dedicated also does not have to be taken to the 24/7 extreme (outside the lab). What I mean is that I fully support the right and acceptance the importance of clearing one’s head and getting outside of one’s work. This goes for vacations (and I myself took a 6 (!) week hiking trek vacation during my own Ph.D.), as well as any other time outside the lab. But at the same time, I do think that most scientists need to demonstrate that eagerness and commitment than goes above and beyond just treating research as a regular job.

    In particular, as Jenny pointed out, as a PI I think the game is different. If I had a position at the National Institutes of Health as a group leader, perhaps you might be right. There are no grants to write—only productivity matters. Funding is automatic. There is no teaching, as there are no students. That also means no training of students, no student committee meetings and everything else that we have here at the university. And the researchers are usually well-trained post-docs. I’ve often thought that a PI could work there 9-5, and even do bench-work if he/she has a small lab and do just fine. Believe me, though, where I am I wouldn’t get very far with that approach. That doesn’t mean YOU wouldn’t, but it’s quite an undertaking.

    I will not expand on this now, as I had planned an upcoming blog on “a day in the life of a PI” for this weekend—if I get a chance to write!

  32. Ian the EM Guy says:

    True, I think the prospect of grant writing and constant meetings instead of “just getting on with the projects” is why I opted out of the career path that would end in attempting to run your own group.

  33. Grant says:

    Regards Ian’s comments, the MSM’s nonsense notwithstanding, in New Zealand the usual line is “work hard, play hard(er)” – point being to work hard at work, but when not working, switch off.

    Personally, I feel there’s room for different approaches and that it has to work for you. As Jennifer was saying it’s the output in the end that really matters. Like the biz world example I gave earlier – their focus was on the output, providing breaks to ensure better outcomes.

    I also think it’ll vary depending on what you’re doing. Currently I have a bit of a slog going on myself – it’s Saturday and I’ll be at it all day, and all Sunday, too. (A quirky effect of being self-employed is that while you are your own boss, the clients needs rather than your own drive the thing.)

    I hope I’m making sense. Early start and I still haven’t gotten myself a coffee!

  34. Pingback: Links of interest (September 18-23, 2011) « Le Physiologiste

  35. ScienceGeekess says:

    I can’t help but find this push towards the work-a-holic lifestyle as a requisite to be a “successful” scientist very sad. Sure, we can all do it when we are young but what happens when we get married, have children, have other responsibilities?
    I did my PhD in Scandinavia, where there seems to be a better work/life balance as a part of the culture. Did this mean that my lab was any less productive? No- in fact I found that when one HAS to leave at 4pm to pick up a child from daycare there is more focus to finish the work BEFORE leaving. Another option is to do some work after the children go to bed. No one stayed until 10 pm. No one came in on holidays (unless it was a rare situation). I left my PhD as a first author on 4 publications and on another 6 papers. Maybe not the best record, but not a bad one.
    We must ask ourselves is it realistic (or necessary) to be a work-a-holic to do good science? What do we tell our partners, children? Sorry, but the science came first? Many of my best “aha” moments came while I was enjoying time with my family or rocking my little one to sleep. Sure, we need to focus on our work but quantity of time on a project does not equal quality of time.

  36. rpg says:

    As someone who has dashed dripping from the shower to look for a pencil because of a brilliant idea, I don’t understand how people can switch off at 5 p.m. (or whenever). Sure, you’re not ‘at work’ in the shower but science is so fucking fascinating I rarely stop thinking about interesting things.

  37. ScienceGeekess says:

    I agree with you, rpg, but you didn’t need to be “working” at the lab to have those moments. You could have been clocked out, cycling or doing your grocery shopping. Even my kids ask me questions about the body or why things happen that lead me into some sort of monologue about science that usually drives them crazy. Also, my husband is also a physiologist so sometimes our breakfast conversations sound more like a lab meeting than morning coffee at home. My point is that I do not consider this a work-a-holic approach to work- rather a balanced one.

  38. rpg says:

    ScienceGeekess, I think we are agreeing loudly with each other. It was a comment further up that I found difficult to grok.

  39. ScienceGeekess says:

    Thank you, rpg!

  40. Ian the EM Guy says:

    I too have the odd scientific epiphany outside of the lab, but I remind you of the Wordsworth I quoted above:

    “Nor less I deem that there are Powers
    Which of themselves our minds impress;
    That we can feed this mind of ours
    In a wise passiveness.”

    What I mean about switching off is that I am not actively thinking about science, and I try not to let it distract me when I’m doing other things that require my full attention like playing sport, playing with my children, or so I’m told, choosing colours for the redecorating ;-(

    When my mind is in a state as Wordsworth said of “wise passiveness” is when my mind may return to science, or it may turn to a line of poetry that I will jot down for one of my occasional poems. Equally it may drift to wondering what superpower I’d give my pet if I had one, I admit, not every thought in “wise passiveness” is really that wise 😉

    Yes science is interesting, but what I suppose I’m trying to say is that my life does not revolve around it any more than my life would revolve around building if I were a builder. It is not all consuming, and it does not define me, it is just part of what I do. Being in the armed forces is a way of life, being a scientist isn’t.

    Here I humbly submit a poem I wrote on the subject of these thoughts we sometimes get in our moments of “wise passiveness” after some of it came to me in just such a moment:

    A thought emerging from the haze
    It coalesced and then it fled
    Evaporating shades of greys
    All tumbling in my head

    The dreamish notion came to me
    On waking recognition flamed
    I sought to hold the memory
    Yet nothing had remained

    So many thoughts have come and gone
    Most independent of my will
    So few ideas survive so long
    To translate down my quill

    Unfocussed and my soul runs free
    Unfettered by my conscious mind
    Thoughts drift in tides on mental seas
    With movement ill defined

    Yet sometimes as the tide recedes
    As water in a rock pool lays
    A pearl remains among the reeds
    Reflecting sunshine’s rays

    And bright in isolation shines
    As from milieu to foreground brought
    The child of a gift divine
    A pure and distilled thought

  41. ricardipus says:

    I’m still trying to bleach my visual cortex as a result of that rpg-shower comment above…

  42. stephenemoss says:

    Ricardipus – I’m afraid that whilst bleaching your photoreceptors would be fairly straightforward, bleaching your visual cortex would require surgical removal of the back of the skull and then application of generous quantities of hydrogen peroxide (or suitable alternative) to the exposed neural tissue. However, this would play havoc with your ocular dominance columns, and is not advised.

  43. Pingback: In which I question the 24/7 lab mentality « Papers of scientific interest

  44. Grant says:


    Perhaps you might indicate you/what this refers to: “It was a comment further up that I found difficult to grok.” – ?

    If you mean my “work hard, play hard(er)” comment, I was referring to the general line given, not talking specifically about scientists.

    As I suspect you know, I’m a notebook fiend too 🙂

  45. munmunsha says:

    I am sorry to say but most of the people have misunderstood this great man Dr Alfredo Quinones Hinojosa. He is a role model for many youngsters who come to this country from very humble backgrounds to make a good life for themselves. What is his fault if hard work is a virtue that his life has taught him? When he was a young kid, his mother did not have enough money to put food on the table. If anybody else was in Dr Qs place he or she would have done exactly the same thing that he did. Any body who dares to rise up to the ladder of success from picking tomatoes to being a world renowned brain surgeon in Johns Hopkins is bound to have a brutal work ethic . “Hard work has never killed anybody but a less of it has rusted many a brains though” was said by a very famous scientist. The people who are making fun of him and abusing him should know the kind of battle this man trying to fight. It takes a lot of courage to step into the most challenging field of medicine which is neurosurgery and to have the guts to find a cure for the most devastating cancer known to mankind: glioblastoma multiformans. It takes a lot of mental strength to do that and it is required for every researcher in that field to have that mental tenacity. That is the lesson; he is trying to get across. Tomorrow if he was able to contribute to this disease than half the people who are mocking and abusing him are going to change their opinion. It is very easy to sit on your comfortable couch and make fun of this remarkable man. He is not forcing anybody to work with him but if you do, he expects that his lab members realize the urgency of the situation and how important it is to find an urgent cure for this disease. He knows that once he retires as a brain researcher, nobody else would probably be able to feel the fire in his belly for the cause as much as he does. Do you all know that in Hopkins when all doctors go home after a hectic day in clinic late in the evening, he goes to his lab. Yes, with his own hands he works sometimes so that he can give a better life to millions of Americans who are afflicted with Neurodegenarative diseases. His research on migrating stem cells will not only give us clues as to how tumors happen, but the knowledge will also help in provide clues for diseases where we need neural migration like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease and MS. The people who think he is arrogant should know that fact that he is probably the only physician scientist who wishes good night even to a house keeper who cleans the hall ways of Hopkins every night. The value of a diamond can only be understood by an expert. I do not blame the people who make fun of him because I think one has to match his scale of thinking to be really able to understand what his philosophy is why he is doing what he is doing.

  46. Thanks for your comment, munmunsha. Just to be clear that I certainly wasn’t “making fun” of Quiñones-Hinojosa in my post; rather, I was questioning the validity of his approach in general. I also thought that the subsequent discussion was thought-provoking and balanced. Your comments are interesting, but it doesn’t change my opinion that the approach that might work for one driven individual would actually work when imposed on others, and indeed might actually be counter-productive – especially when imposed on a cohort of young and possibly vulnerable trainees. Quiñones-Hinojosa himself may not force his group to match his pace, but there are many lab heads out there who actually do.

    Also, more generally, I think that a number of posters were trying to make the point that there are also many measures of “success” – until the diseases in question are actually “cured”, it’s difficult to say if the approaches used to fight them are actually effective. Lots of papers is not the same as an effective therapy.

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