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The Black Hole

The 24/7 lab: Motivated scientists or slave-driving supervisors?


At the end of August, an article popped out from Nature News that sent many PhDs and postdocs into a tailspin.  After asking 11 labs with a reputation for “working hard” and being allowed to visit just one of them, Heidi Ledford, profiled what she calls a 24/7 lab, that of high profile neurosurgeon Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa.  We’ve all heard the stories, and some of us have pulled similar hours, but in this lab, there seems to be an acknowledgment of – and pride in – working hideously long hours.

The article and comments are definitely worth a read with the battle of work/life balance raging throughout – at some points I find myself agreeing with the driven scientists and other times feeling a deep sense of pity for those that feel forced to do experiments out of hours.  It begged the question of where the workforce in the 24/7 lab comes from:  Motivated scientists or slave-driving supervisors?

In my old PhD lab in Vancouver, we had semi-regular day long Saturday lab retreats at our supervisors’ house complete with couches, white board, Q/A, and great food/drink.  We also knew that the only time to really get a good chunk of time with her on a paper or on project design was in the evenings or on the weekend.  This might sound crazy to some people, but the students and postdocs instigated these meetings and to me, this marks one of the key distinctions between a motivated lab group and a having a slave driver for a boss.

Of course it is difficult to figure out which situation exists in which lab group and I imagine it would also depend on which lab member you asked (as implied in Ledford’s article) – but the question that percolates to the top is “How do we encourage motivated scientists and crack down on slave-driving supervisors?”

One comment struck a particularly strong chord with me when it queried the benefits of long working days:

Working long hours and weekends is fine, but you need time off too; rarely do insights occur after 14 hours of picking colonies.

This underpins another substantial distinction that needs to be made, namely, what kind of long hours should a good scientist be pulling.  I think the quality of work and/or thinking hours are perhaps the most under-appreciated qualities in a young scientists and a difficult thing to come to terms with.  We’ve talked a little about this before on the blog in Reducing medical (science) waste: Thinking before doing.  Attending seminars/conferences and having discussions alongside your work are absolutely central to developing your abilities as an independent researcher.

Realistically, what the field needs to be worried about is whether or not we’re spoiling bright young minds by making them work these types of long hours out of compulsion instead of desire.  If a lab needs lots of technical work done, hire technical staff and pay them accordingly – don’t exploit cheap PhD and postdoctoral labour.  If there’s not enough money to do that, then join the discussion of how we can better manage scientific resources (human and otherwise).          

In the end, I would maintain that a healthy obsession is likely a necessity in academia – the training period teaches you quickly that the hours are plentiful and the pay is poor so you do need to be getting something “extra” out of it.  The extras for me so far have been flexibility, independence, excellent colleagues, and a touch of satisfied curiosity (plus a lot more questions which keep things interesting).  Not bad so far, I can only hope the future holds more of the same.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SB / September 12, 2011 at 14:46

    As ridiculous as that article was to read, I have to say I respect the PI for being up front about his expectations with new students. Not to say that being a ruthless slavedriver is completely OK even if it is made clear from the start — anyone can have life things happen and there needs to be reasonable flexibility built in to accommodate unexpected events in trainees’ lives. But to me, the bigger problem are situations where someone expects their peeps to work 16-18 hour days, when this is implied rather than made explicit, or communicated too late (e.g. after someone is already “locked in” to a PhD program).
    I’m not sure that I would be drawn to a lab where productivity is measured in terms of hours worked rather than actual contribution to science (27 people publishing 29 papers in fairly obscure journals is not that impressive…), but I don’t think there is an intrinsic problem with building a research group of people all willing to work painful hours, as long as this expectation is made clear before they start, and as long as the primary motivation of the lab is learning and discovery, rather than a desire to win the prize for most sleep-deprived lab members, or whatever.

  2. The 24/7 lab: in praise of time out | Code for Life / September 22, 2011 at 23:43

    […] The 24/7 lab: Motivated scientists or slave-driving supervisors? […]

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