In Which I Feel a Kinship with Bruce Banner

As faculty at research institutions, we have a lot of freedom in how we run our groups and that’s generally a good thing. Most of us do many things in similar ways: we have group meetings and individual meetings with our students; we teach them how to write research papers and give presentations; we train them to identify compelling problems at the cutting edge and devise ways to tackle research challenges.

Yet, we are not all the same. Some things transpired in my workplace that reminded me that not all advisors are made equal and that many students suffer in bad advising situations.

I found out one of my colleagues has mandatory group meetings on weekends. This is in addition to multiple research-progress checks during the week (as in, every other day). This I learned from a student whom I know from coursework and who is quite capable, but who is now thinking about dropping the PhD altogether or switching groups because the pressure is unrelenting.

I am angry for the student, for all students. Angry with everyone who thinks that their own priorities need to be everyone else’s priorities.

Look, I am a workaholic, or at least I used to be. I spent my youth perpetually craving to work more. I was irritated by other people’s laissez faire approach to research, angry that they didn’t feel as passionately about it as I did. But I never chained anyone to the lab. I never required people to be in on the weekends or in the evenings, even though I regularly worked evenings and weekends myself.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned as a mentor and, fortunately, did so pretty early on, is that the people I advise are not my clones. Many students are in grad school for reasons different from mine. Most people, in grad school and elsewhere, do not run towards challenge, difficulty, and constant change. They want well-paying, interesting, and secure jobs that won’t stress them out too much. They want to have time and energy for other people and hobbies.

Graduate students have to work hard, but their workload has to be reasonable. I am confident that if a student really works 40 hours a week on coursework and research, they will get a ton of work done, generally more than enough for very good progress toward the PhD. I know sometimes there are experimental demands that might necessitate longer uninterrupted hours (e.g., when you finally got some time on an expensive shared instrument), but these should be intermittent.

There is a big difference between following your inner workaholic drive and foisting your workaholic habits on others. Maybe you want to work only with other workaholics, so if you select them well things might work out, but forcing everyone in the group to forgo weekends and evenings because you do is just cruel.

I have another colleague who still keeps bleary-eyed-teen hours himself: rolls into work close to noon, has meetings with students into the evening. If I had had an advisor like that, I wouldn’t have gotten a PhD with him. I had a kid in grad school and daycare was only open during certain hours. I knew I had to be productive during those hours and I was, extremely so. I hinted to this colleague that maybe graduate students have other obligations in the evening, and he said they were all single (?!) and anyway those were his hours and the students had to adjust.

These two colleagues both came from large, high-powered groups. I am assuming they do what they saw done, the way they saw it done. Top people in my field all run really tight ships and work themselves and their groups extremely hard, which is disheartening: if you want balance and variety in your life, if you have significant obligations toward family, or if you are simply not willing to push your group members beyond what they might be comfortable with, you cannot reach the top echelons in the field.

I am angry because capable people should be able to complete their PhDs without becoming so miserable from overwork to think about quitting. They should not feel unworthy of the degree because they need time on the weekend to do laundry or buy groceries or see their significant other or catch up on sleep. The PhD is hard enough already; the technical challenges at the cutting edge are hard enough.

I am angry because everyone is so enamored of prolific researchers cranking out dozens of papers every year that we turn a blind eye to the abuse they might inflict on their group members. Whenever I’ve brought up these concerns with somewhat higher-ups, I’ve been met with uncomfortable laughs and “Boys will be boys” “Ha-ha, I guess he just works really hard and expects a lot from others.”

I am angry because, at the same time, these same higher-ups make empty promises to help with grad-student mental health, which seems to be universally abysmal, yet never say out loud that some advisors are, in fact, unreasonable and abusive. Yes, some  — perhaps many — make it out of the groups of these abusive advisors seemingly unscathed and go on to become successful, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others who have been run out of degree programs and out of science altogether not because they didn’t work hard or love research, but because they were human beings who couldn’t or wouldn’t make the work their entire life.

I am angry because of how cutthroat and competitive science has become. I am angry at how often, at the same time, the expensive, cutthroat science is actually quite boring, at how often what legions of overworked junior scientists produce is flashy but underwhelming. I am angry because the demands are so high yet the payoff is so mundane.

I am angry because I am 5*3^2, old enough to be wise, yet deep down I still feel like a loser for not working more and harder, because, deep inside, KoolAid still runs through my veins and I feel that unless I am all in I am not worthy of being in at all, because it is so hard to shake the workaholism as a necessity for self-actualization and instead embrace balance and empathy and deep relationships with other humans as a genuine source of happiness and not feel it’s a cop-out.

I am always angry.

Image result for hulk i'm always angry

27 comments

  1. Yikes! that’s crazy, really taking it to an extreme. We often hear about the toxic advisor who expects their students to be working nights and weekends, but usually not with the PI as well keeping the same hours! (Isn’t it usually the professor who leaves at the crack of noon every Friday to play golf and drink the rest of the day away, while the grad students are required to stay slaving away in the lab?).
    I recently (due to multiple grant deadlines all hitting at once, simultaneous with two manuscripts coming back with tight revision deadlines, and the end of the academic year: given my spouse and I being naturally nocturnal) went back to “bleary-eyed-teen hours” myself- it can’t last long. But I know some of my grad students are early morning people, and that’s fine, we can always negotiate a time to meet when needed.
    And I recognize that they are people too, and must have a life outside the lab! Not long ago one of my collaborators told me, seeming proud about it, “I saw (one of your PhD students) at the movies with his wife on Saturday night. Can you believe it? I told him he needed to be back in the lab working on his dissertation.” I really had to restrain myself from an unprofessional response to her doing that, it was wrong in so many ways… how can we get rid of these attitudes?

  2. Because I’m teaching late afternoon and early evening classes (MWF 4–5:05, TTh 3:20–4:55, 5:20–6:55), I’m switching to “bleary-eyed-teen” hours myself. I’m generally getting to bed between midnight and 2am and getting up around 8am. I’ve always been more productive in the afternoon and evening, as have most of my students. It seems to be a common condition here, as the hallways of the building and both the faculty and the grad student offices are very quiet before 10am. I see more students around at 7pm than at 10am.

    I no longer supervise grad students, but when I did, meetings were generally in the early afternoon, when almost all personnel would be awake and productive. We avoided conflicts with classes, which was pretty easy, since I never had a large group and there were few classes to conflict with. I only worked with a few students who had day-care conflicts, and we could usually schedule around those fairly easily.

  3. I have talked with my mentor about my concerns about our ability to retain faculty of color as our dean has a new initiative to hire faculty of color. But what good will hiring do if we can’t retain the ones we have? Two of our faculty of color are apparently at huge risk of not getting tenure. One was recently advised to jump off the tenure track bc she wasn’t producing enough (grants and pubs) for tenure. My mentor’s response about the latter was that she had been told this faculty “had a life outside” and thus wasn’t working as hard or wasn’t as invested. My mentor works constantly and clearly sees that as the only way to be – but I think many in younger generations (mentor is in her 60s) just don’t want that kind of life!

  4. Someone just published a list of ten rules for a healthy lab. Flexibility and reasonable hours are both on the list

    Due to health/mental health reasons, I can’t work the long hours of some professors. I’ve always worried that I won’t be able to hack it as a tenure-track PI. We shall see. Needless to say, I’m not going to expect crazy hours from my students.

  5. I had always hoped that word about labs like that would spread and eventually the ‘free market’ of student selection would take over and the PI wouldn’t be able to get any more researchers. But that’s never the case, and it kind of self-perpetuates.

  6. @phindustry: Part of the problem with the “whisper network” approach is that new students tend to not believe the older ones when they warn them off. IDK if they’re blinded by prestige or overconfidence or simply naivete, but I know I tended not to believe older students when I was rotating, and then when it was my turn to warn, the newbies disbelieved me…

  7. @phindustry and @curiosityphd: Yep, that’s because newbies secretly think that those warning them are actually losers who couldn’t hack it. “Pfft,” think the newbies. “This won’t happen to me. I’m special!”

    It’s the same with younger women looking down on older women who warn that sexism is alive and well, and to watch out and stick together. “Pfft,” think the younger women. “This won’t happen to me. I am special!”

  8. My experience:
    -another Prof in my dept requires trainees to work a specific set of 60 hrs each week.
    -they have only one trainee left.

    -i don’t set any expectations on trainee hours.
    -i have lots of trainees, including overflow from colleague.

    -about half of my students work less than 30 hrs/wk and will likely take longer than average to finish PhD.
    -mental health of these students is poor. Bipolar, depression, anxiety, etc. (Probably the reason for slower productivity.)
    -i haven’t the slightest clue how to tailor advising relationship to meet these students’ needs beyond giving them space and typical scientific direction.

  9. My advisor in grad school often held lab meetings on days the university was closed. We always had lab meetings on Mondays, and even if there was a university holiday (or one time–a snow day!), the meeting would still happen on that Monday. I was so eager to show off how hard-working and dedicated I was that I actually encouraged this (I’m ashamed in retrospect). One time when we were planning a meeting for a day the uni was closed, he asked me how the grad students felt about it. I enthusiastically said “Oh we’re all looking forward to it!” It’s true that I didn’t mind it at the time (I really had no life outside the lab at that time), but in retrospect I see just how unreasonable that practice was.

  10. Also, with regard to the whisper network…it’s SO true that you never believe that stuff as a newbie. I heard several disillusioned older grad students complaining about my advisor and program when I first started. However, I paid exactly zero attention to them, beyond wondering how on earth people who were so lazy had ever managed to get into a PhD program. I was so sure I was more dedicated and had a better work ethic than they did, and that I’d succeed where they had failed. I thought their complaining reflected negatively on them, not on my advisor or the program. I cringe thinking back to how naive I was. It all came back around, though: by Year 5 I was probably 1000x more disillusioned than those older students ever had been.

  11. @ordinal @xykacademiqz Exactly. I am ashamed how sure I was as a new grad student that the older students were all just lazy, dissatisfied, and not “real academics”.

    I recently tried to discourage a prospective student in our department from joining a colleague’s lab. I have suspicions it’s not an easy lab to work in and it’s not a good fit for this particular student. Not very collegial of me, perhaps, but I don’t want this kid knocking on my door in a year, begging me to take him on because he’s miserable. I found out another PI also tried to gently discourage the kid from joining that lab. We shall see if he listens.

  12. @curiosityphd – I hope the student listens to you and doesn’t join that person’s lab. Since I finished my PhD, I’ve gone even further and generally try to dissuade people from getting PhDs, period! I think of it as training for a profession that is slowly dying out, and thus not a good idea for 99% of the people who want to do it.

  13. @Callie I hope so, too. I agree that a PhD for a lot of things is a bad idea. I work in food safety, which has a pretty strong industry side, but still, I try to encourage potential students and advisees to consider carefully what they want to do and what degree they really need for that. If they want to work in industry, a PhD is a liability, and academia/government/consulting can only absorb so many people.

  14. @curiosityphd – YES to the PhD being a liability in many (though presumably not all) industries. It’s so sad to me that most grad students don’t realize that—they think industry will be an “easy” Plan B if academia doesn’t work out. When I was starting grad school, I was already pretty sure I didn’t want to go into academia, but I loved my area of research (social psychology) and thought I wouldn’t have any issues finding a job in industry once I had a PhD. While I did eventually find an industry job, the path was far from straightforward, and I found that my PhD hindered the job search more than it helped. I wish I’d known that going into my grad program—quite frankly, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have gone to grad school.

  15. I just wrote a post last week “MS > PhD” https://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2019/04/12/ms-phd/

    In engineering fields, the MS degree is the optimal working degree—a PhD is only for academics and a few rarefied research labs. (Exception: biomolecular engineering, as biotech companies don’t really hire people for creative work unless they have several years of postdoc training—biology has been overproducing BS and PhD graduates for so long that there is a huge postdoc holding tank of people who can be hired for far less than one would expect—sort of like adjunct teaching in the humanities.)

  16. @gasstationwithoutpumps I agree on the engineering, for the most part. I do have a couple of friend who got PhDs in engineering and are doing really well, but I’m not sure how that compares to how they’d have done if they’d gotten an MS instead. I think a lot of students just assume the higher degree = better pay+better options.

    @callie– yeah, I tried the whole industry as plan B for a bit after graduation. I was in a city with TONS of biotech and biomedical industries, but the only place I got an interview was a place where the CEO, a former professor ran the place like a giant lab. The pay was equivalent to an academic postdoc, and they had–I kid you not–Saturday lab meetings. For four hours. Each week. Nobody was smiling, nobody was talking with each other, and the PI admitted to being a micromanager (in so many words). There were also some red flags about his ethics I heard about through my network. For a good year after I turned that job down, I would occasionally stress dream I’d taken a job there. So yeah, industry as Plan B, without developing the job skills and experience (and stopping with the degree) that industry actually wants is a bad plan.

  17. Could’ve written this too (except not so well), and including the last bit.

    The KoolAid runs in my veins too, but I loathe it. I loathe so much of scientific culture, the endless clawing for recognition/funding/a job. I was with a bunch of senior female PIs just last week who were glorifying overwork. It was depressing. I try not to transmit these standards to my trainees, but in my weekly one-on-ones, I am simultaneously frequently wondering why more hasn’t been accomplished.

  18. Never expect the benevolence of a institution. When vulnerable groups needs protection, it should not solely come down to them from the institution they involved with. They need actual power to counteract inherent power imbalance within institutions. Graduate students need to unionize, just as the workers’ union demanded 8-hour workday and working place safety regulation, etc in the past, student union will be more effective force to advocate students’ benefits and well-being.

  19. @associate prof – YES to loathing scientific culture! I feel the exact same way. Good science is not incentivized anymore. What’s incentivized is constantly doing more, more, MORE. That doesn’t lead to good science—in fact, it drives many good scientists out of the profession entirely, because even though they might have something very valuable to contribute, they can’t work at the ridiculous pace that is expected nowadays. Ugh…

  20. Currently, being at a so-called high powered institution, I have to say that a lot of pressure doesn’t necessarily come from advisors, but from peers. Advisors can be largely ignorant of how much students are working. But the desire to please the advisor and compete for the advisor’s admiration can result in massive overwork. Once this becomes the culture in the lab, it will be passed onto incoming students. In my current lab, there seems to be a mismatch in perception in terms of what the advisor expects, not necessarily much more than 40hrs/week, compared to what the students think the advisor expects. Of course, the advisor is still partly to blame in this scenario for not properly delineating what is expected of students. It’s easy to imagine that the students in this kind of lab, once they become advisors, will require a lot of their own students.

  21. @Callie
    You must read the book “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy”. XD

  22. @Callie: In general or something specific? I feel like I must have beaten every topic to death over the past ~10 years of academic blogging. The easiest thing would be to get a copy of Academaze (the best of the blog 2010-2016) and then browse xykademiqz archives for 2016 and onward.

  23. “@Callie You must read the book ‘The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy'”

    After hearing that book recommended for years, I finally sat down to read it last fall.

    The title is the best part. It is one of the worst books I have ever read in my life.

    I truly wanted to like it because I think much of (scientific) academia is nuts. There were whiffs of argument with which I agreed. But for the most part, the reasoning was horribly sloppy, and I struggled to follow arguments based mostly on extensively quoted opinions. The writers have some inchoate sense of what academic jobs “should” be like but didn’t really bother to hold any their ideas to the light. There’s even a section where they criticize faculty for passing peer review opportunities on to their students, and another where they criticize faculty for relying on administrative assistants to help them with things. What? I have thought someday of writing a book that is what that book *should* be.

  24. What really matters here is asking the question.
    In this tiny cyberspace, we indeed are fully equipped with super analytical warheads and can often become tunnel vision regarding the big picture.

    For instance, the public comments on the recent sit-in incidents in John Hopkins are often on the inconvenience and obstruction by the student protest, yet few discussions were focused on the causes on the first place. Why they protest and make such a scene?

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