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.