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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Open Thread | Main | Three Times Is Enemy Action »

September 30, 2010

The Hours You Put In

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Posted by Derek

Several people have brought this editorial (PDF) to my attention: "Where is the Passion?" It's from a professor at the Sidney Kimmel Center at Johns Hopkins, and its substance will be familiar to many people who've been in graduate school. Actually, the author's case can be summed up in a sentence: he walks the halls on nights and weekends; there aren't enough people in the labs. Maybe "kids these days!" would do the job even faster.

I'm not completely unsympathetic to this argument - but at the same time, I'm not completely unsympathetic to the people who've expressed a desire to punch the guy, either. The editorial goes on for quite a bit longer than it needs to to make its point, and I speak as someone who gets paid by the word for printed opinion pieces. It's written in what is probably a deliberately irritating style. But one of the lessons of the world is that annoying people whom you don't like are not necessarily wrong. What about this one?

One of the arguments here could be summed up as "Look, you people are trying to cure cancer here - don't you owe it to the patients (and the people who provided the money) to be up here working as hard as possible?" There's no way to argue with that, on its face - that's probably correct. But now we move on to the definition of "as hard as possible".

He's using hours worked as a proxy for scientific passion - an imperfect measure, to be sure. At the two extremes, there are people who are not in the lab who are thinking hard about their work, and there are people in the lab who are just hamster-wheeling and doing everything in the most brutal and stupid ways possible. But there is a correlation, especially in academia. (In many industrial settings, people are actively discouraged from doing too much lab work when they might be alone). If you're excited about your work, you're more likely to do more of it.

Unfortunately, it's hard to instill scientific excitement. And if anyone's going to do it at all, you'd think it would be the PIs of all these grad students. What surprises me is that more of them aren't falling back on the traditional grad-school substitute for passion, which is fear. The author does mention a few labs at his institute that have the all-the-time work ethic, and I'm willing to bet that good ol' anxiety and pressure have as much or more to do with their habits. And a little of that mixture is fine, actually, as long as you don't lay it on with a trowel.

So yes, I wish that there were more excited, passionate researchers around. But where I part company with this editorial is when it goes into get-off-my-lawn mode. The "You have to earn your way to a life outside the lab" attitude has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I've always thought that it probably demotivates ten people for every one that it manages to encourage. The author also spends too much time talking about the Good Old Days when people worked hard, with lousy equipment. In the dark! In the snow! And without all these newfangled kits and time-saving reagents! That makes me worry that he's confusing some issues. An idiot frantically digging a ditch with a spoon looks like a more passionate worker than someone who came through with a backhoe three hours ago, and is now doing something else.

Still, the point of all those time-saving kits is indeed to keep moving and do something else. Are people doing that? I'd rather judge the Sidney Kimmel Center by what comes out of it, rather than how late the lights burn at night. Is that the real "elephant in the room" that the editorial winds up invoking? That what the patients and donors would really be upset about is that not enough is coming out the other end of the chute? Now that's another problem entirely. . .

Update: Chemjobber has some questions.

Comments (138) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | Who Discovers and Why


1. Chemjobber on September 30, 2010 7:31 AM writes...

Oh, heck -- I posted on it, too and offer a quantitative challenge. (Linked in my handle.)

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2. Laura on September 30, 2010 7:47 AM writes...

I really can't stand this attitude in research or in anything. There is No One Thing that should so overwhelmingly dominate someone's life to the literal detriment of everything else. I love my research, I love to put an enormous amount of time in, but you know, I'm going to be doing that for a long time after - decades, surely. I want to go home, and get the sleep I need so the next day, I can keep going. I'm going to break to eat. I'm going to have other parts of my life that allow my research to be done with fresh thinking and renewed energy. There's really no way we can say categorically that people 30 years ago worked 'harder' than we do now, there's no accurate way to compare the effort.

At the end of the day, there's a broad range of what's 'working hard enough' with some space on either side for 'too hard' and 'clearly not enough'.

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3. Ken Bob on September 30, 2010 7:48 AM writes...

Ok, the obvious question: if the cancer research is so important to him, why is he wasting time walking around taking census in these precious minutes and writing these editorials? I don't see any cancer curing going on with this.

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4. Anon on September 30, 2010 7:50 AM writes...

What about all the people walking past the building who don't work there - why aren't they INSIDE passionately fighting against cancer, armed only with passionate science and their passion? How can they sleep at night?!


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5. alig on September 30, 2010 8:01 AM writes...

Want me to put in more hours? Pay me for it. Time & a half for overtime, double time for weekends.

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6. anon on September 30, 2010 8:09 AM writes...

I am a scientist in academia and I love my job - but its a job. no 5 is right. We get lousy annual salaries, compared to many other professionals. Those professionsals get higher salaries and often have to work 50-60 hour weeks. I'm not going to do that unless I get paid 25-50% more each year.

I like doing other things than just science, and I think doing those things makes me better at science. I'd rather go and do those other things (like have relationships, read books, running, hiking, cycling, etc.) than spend more time breathing in chemicals and running NMR spectra.

I have observed many chemists run off and try to solve a problem. Often the would do better spending more time thinking about it beforehand and less time (and reagents) running reactions. The time off from research is what helps you solve those problems.

and finally, the guy sounds like an idiot.

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7. Dannoh on September 30, 2010 8:14 AM writes...

To number 5: Its even simpler than that. You dont need to pay me for it, overtime or double time, just express some appreciation for the effort invested.

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8. emjeff on September 30, 2010 8:25 AM writes...

I am trying to imagine the inhuman monster who would begrudge anyone (even a grad student) a Sunday afternoon off.

Show me a person who works 80 hrs a week, and I'll show you a a divorced and bitter wreck of a human who will someday deeply regret his choices.

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9. Will on September 30, 2010 8:27 AM writes...

All I can say is this

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10. Anonymous on September 30, 2010 8:32 AM writes...

Ha ha! Will, I almost expected that to be a link to the new Cee-Lo Green song.

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11. Dr. Smalls on September 30, 2010 8:40 AM writes...

This is kinda like the numbers game in organic chemistry. The more molecules you make, the more productive you are.

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12. Tt on September 30, 2010 8:48 AM writes...

In my lab, I really don't care how many hours people put in. I just care about results. The people I rate best at the end of the year are the ones who work smarter and not harder. The ones who utilize the best resources at their disposal and take the time to talk with others. It's been my general experience that the slaves I knew in grad school do not necessarily succeed later. In fact, the most successful ones are the ones who were engaged, excited, had hobbies, and were talented drinkers and socializers. PI's should actively encourage excitement and innovation, not hours at the bench.

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13. processchemist on September 30, 2010 8:50 AM writes...

I worked 5 years in an industrial environment appreciating overtime work over anything else.
The most stupid and improductive attitude I've ever experienced. Productivity in our work is not extensive, it's intensive.

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14. Anon on September 30, 2010 8:54 AM writes...

Fortunately in grad school I had one of those rare breeds of advisor who never demanded long hours from us. I even asked him when I started what his expecations were, and he said 40 hours a week plus 8 hours "sometime" over the weekend. That's pretty generous compared to most advisors.

Inevitably most folks in his lab put in way more hours than that, because our advisor understood that the passion for science has to come from within. Nobody can instill that in you by demanding long hours, which is often a proxy for actually caring about the work. Everyone will find their own balance of work and the rest of their lives that works for them. I know plenty of brilliant people who barely seem to lift a finger but get a lot done, and plenty of folks who put in long hours to get nothing done.

The hell with hours worked. Your innate abilities, your drive, and your efficiency will all have a much larger impact on where your scientific career takes you.

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15. Aspirin on September 30, 2010 9:21 AM writes...

For someone who prowls the halls on Sunday, Mr. Kern's publications don't seem to be particularly more prolific than those spend five or six healthy days on research and take Sunday off.

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16. Nick on September 30, 2010 9:27 AM writes...

The view that full-time, to-the-exclusion-of-all-other-activity commitment is required to be a scientist is troubling to say the least. Do people who think this not have families, or does there "passion" for their work mean that they neglect them, and will be strangers to their children? Are they tedious, one-dimensional people who have no non-scientific interests to pursue or activities in which they wish to participate? Do they use housekeepers (either paid or spousal), or are there places of residence pits of filth and disrepair?

People (scientists and otherwise) who are browbeaten and intimidated into working 80-hour weeks have always struck me as unfortanate souls; those who work such hours voluntarily have always struck me as obsessive nutcases who would probably be heavily medicated if the subject of their obsession didn't pay well. I have no desire to be either, and would have left science in a heartbeat if I thought one had to be such a person in order to be a scientist.

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17. darwin on September 30, 2010 9:45 AM writes...

I dont have TEVO. If I dont leave early, I will miss Oprah. ...and it is the last season.

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18. Cellbio on September 30, 2010 9:46 AM writes...

Well, I for one am very unimpressed with Dr. Kern's thinking. Makes me think of the great John Wooden quote: "Don't confuse activity with achievement". I think chemjobbers curve B is an accurate decision of the long term productivity loss with excessive hours.

The standout periods where I would expect more hours/wk are during grad student and post-doc training periods. Whether motivated for timely results, or by fear, and often facilitated by a period of life without a spouse or children, this time is often associated with really long hours. Or at least used to be.

Maybe Dr Kern trained in an earlier period, or thinks his experience should apply across the board. In truth, however, jobs are scarce, post-docs spend much more time in this "transition" period, so what would people be rushing into work at all hours to accomplish? As discusses often here and well documented elswhere, the training system and grant system is broken, rewarding established PIs and offering fewer well paying stable jobs than are needed to meet the numbers of scientist being trained in labs like Dr Kern's.

Finally, the general assertion that these folks are curing cancer is laughable. They are conducting basic research with grant dollars, generating publications not cures. if Dr. Kern is interested in curing cancer, then examine the research programs that he others direct that appear to be very short on inspiration.

Of course, that could have been the other conclusion from the study, namely, he and the other PIs are failing to direct meaningful research that has a clear implication for relieving human suffering.

Dr Kern, weak thinking, and apparently, very weak management skills. Manage toward your stated goal of curing cancer and people will follow. Try to bleed them for productivity to assure your next grant, tenure, career aspirations, whatever, and they will see right through it. Self-serving behavior is the most common phenotype of academics, and creates many problems, including the one you decry.

Last point, how does family fit into this equation? How do women have careers if this is the metric for productivity?

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19. Chris D on September 30, 2010 9:48 AM writes...

Others have already pointed out that researchers should be allowed to be normal human beings.

To look at it another way, Derek, you repeatedly point out that cancer research is a series of tiny incremental improvements on what turns out to be a dizzying array of causes and treatments for different cancers. It's pretty clear that no single researcher is going to "cure cancer". Beyond putting in an honest day's work of being curious and interested and dedicated, is it really reasonable to ask people to sacrifice themselves, and their lives and relationships, for those tiny incremental bits of knowledge? I know in my field, when people sacrifice themselves for little to no reward, all you get is burned-out, cynical people.

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20. Mike on September 30, 2010 9:48 AM writes...

This type of mindset made me decide to leave with a Master's (with my sanity and love of chemistry intact), and to stay as far away from academia as possible. A PhD (or anything else, really) is not worth being burned out/depressed/too tired to have hobbies or do non-lab/non-work related things.

It seems to me that this Prof is just continuing the "I worked 60+ hrs per week in when I was in grad school, so my students should too" culture.

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21. Donough on September 30, 2010 9:49 AM writes...

Two quotes come to mind
I'm no writer; but if I were, it seems to me I'd want to poke my head up every once in a while and take a look around; see what's going on. It's life, Jake! You can miss it if you don't open your eyes." - Benjamin Sisko, STDS9

I mean is, you can get a good look at a T-bone by sticking your head up a butcher's ass... No, wait. It's gotta be your bull.
- Tommy, Tommy boy

Most if not all major discoveries are probably stated at work. But sometimes the finishing touches or the ability to apply the discovery comes from external sources such as discussions over beer. If someone is always in the lab or always in the books, I should worry.

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22. FC on September 30, 2010 9:51 AM writes...

I would think most of the professors should care more about the results than the hours. That is not always the case. My adviser in grad school (15+ years ago) is a big name org. professor in an Ivy league chem. dept. He worked about 60+ hours a week (in his late 40's). For us, we had to work (be there) at least that many hours just to keep up with him. Although he did not say how many hours we had to work, but he did check each lab every day before he went home (at 7-8pm) just to see who was still here.

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23. Chemoptoplex on September 30, 2010 9:59 AM writes...

Why don't you use this valuable hall prowling time to bunk beds over everyone's desks and install food pellet dispensers. If your researchers publish ten papers and are really really good, they get an hour of sunlight. If they publish one hundred papers they get the picture of their family back.

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24. Industry Guy on September 30, 2010 10:13 AM writes...

It sounds to me that the author is simply jealous of the fact that everyone else has a life away from research and he cant understand why he is alone strolling in the halls on a Friday evening

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25. Anonymous on September 30, 2010 10:13 AM writes...

Laura #2, I couldn't agree with you more. My graduate advisor had a motto "If you're not sleeping you should be working". He was insane. People hovered around the labs all day, all night, all weekend but nothing really got done. Lots of sitting around, drinking coffee, "chewing the fat" was confused with actual productivity. After sitting around all day, they'd come in at midnight and start a little experiment that would run to 3:00am. These people would be seen as the dedicated heroes of science with all the passion because they worked at midnight! Oh my!!! I on the other hand worked from 7am to 7pm every day but was not seen as not dedicated or passionate because I wouldn't come in and work the midnight shift as well. I have no time for these academics. They are full of themselves and couldn't cut the real productivity and discipline expected in industry. In fact my advisor would also brag that the most successful academics where the people so neurotic they would'nt be able to hold a "real" job. Yeah....I want to aspire to be like that!

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26. Greg Hlatky on September 30, 2010 10:20 AM writes...

I can't help but bring up this excerpt from Colin Eaborn's profile of Henry Gilman:

"He expected total dedication: students were required to be in the laboratory working every day, including Sundays, late into the night, but there is no indication that at that time they resented this... In the 1930s, however, his demands gave rise to much discontent among the 30-40 members of his research group (an abnormally large number for those days), as several correspondents have made clear. To some extent this was probably a reflection of the general unhappiness during the Depression, when there was much unemployment, poverty and uncertainty, but the complaints of Gilman's students of those days centre on three specific aspects of his behaviour. First the unremitting pressure on them to work all and every day, and to produce results each day; second the low stipends he paid them; and third, and the most important, the length of time, and the uncertainty of its duration, that they were normally required to stay before receiving their Ph.D. degrees.

"The students certainly had no opportunity to slack. Gilman went around his laboratories three times each day, in the morning, afternoon and evening, questioning each student in turn about what he had done since his last visit, what he was now doing, and what he intended to do next. When a project was at an especially interesting stage the student concerned would be questioned on all three visits. Gilman remembered exactly what he had been told on the previous visit and so the hours in between had to be accounted for. The initial questioning usually took the form 'What's new?' and the answer was followed by the question 'What else is new?' and the answer to that by the further question 'And what else?'. One of his students from those days has written: 'Always we would begin to think that we had done very little. The cunning ones soon realized that you should keep some results up your sleeve to report next week in order to make your achievements seem more impressive.'

"He did not visit the laboratory every Sunday, but did so sufficiently often that the students could not risk being absent that day. At all times students in the laboratory were expected to be giving their full attention to experiments in progress, and those caught seizing an opportunity to study for graduate course or preliminary examinations were sharply reprimanded... Gilman himself frequently stayed in the building until after 10 p.m. and then went home to work until after midnight reading or writing. During the whole of his career, except at the time of his eye operation, he was rarely, if ever, away from Ames for more than a week or so at a time, and when he did go away he told no one, not even his secretary, when he would be back, so that his students could not risk taking a day off.

"As for the stipends he paid, he fixed the amounts by working out carefully exactly the minimum sum on which each student could manage. This had the secondary advantage of leaving them little to spend on leisure activities which might have kept them away from the laboratory. Someone who worked for him as postdoctoral fellow in the 1940s has told of how, in fixing his salary, Gilman asked him whether soap was provided free in his lodgings, and made an appropriate allowance when told that it was not.

"The majority of the graduate students took 5-7 years to get their degrees, at a time when in other universities three years was still usual. Some were required to stay even longer; at least one is known to have taken ten years (and he, tragically, was killed in a fall from a ladder before leaving Ames) and some abandoned the attempt after a lengthy stay. One factor was that Gilman did not in most cases assign a graduate research project but instead directed the student to carry out a series of preparations, often unrelated, which could be expected to give rise to a number of short publications, and it required considerable initiative and ingenuity on the part of the student to devise and carry out additional experiments that would enable him or her to draw the material together into a coherent whole for a thesis. The preliminary examinations that had to be passed before the Ph.D. thesis could be submitted also presented a major hurdle, because they could be taken only with the supervisor's permission. This was normally not readily forthcoming from Gilman, and many students were too afraid of him even to seek it until he offered it."

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27. Any on September 30, 2010 10:33 AM writes...

I find that the people that appreciate what it really means to SAVE LIVES are the people who HAVE LIVES.

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28. Fellow Old Timer on September 30, 2010 10:42 AM writes...

Simon Flexner, the first president of Rockefeller University, said that to run a research institution one should be capable of cruelty.

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29. LNT on September 30, 2010 10:44 AM writes...

I appologize in advance for plagerism here. I'm re-posting an annonymous comment from "Chemjobbers" web site:

Maybe if we spent more time having relationships outside of lab, with our loved ones who are going to die of cancer, we would be more inspired to work harder in the lab to cure cancer, but that is just crazy talk.

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30. Erik on September 30, 2010 10:44 AM writes...

Re: Gilman

What a sad, bitter husk of a human being.

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31. Mike on September 30, 2010 10:50 AM writes...


This reminds me of tales of disciplinarian captains in the 19th century Royal Navy. Often such captains would be unfortunately injured, shot, killed, or knocked overboard during battle, or be subject to mutiny. I am surprised something similar did not happen to Gilman.

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32. quintus on September 30, 2010 10:51 AM writes...

Perhaps this idiot is looking for a job in industry, which is exactly where he would fit in.

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33. DingDong on September 30, 2010 10:52 AM writes...

Maybe this thinking correlates with the increasing publication of poor work.
OK, you can work faster, purify faster and get through library's of conditions and products faster, so you have to complete papers faster...

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34. Ax on September 30, 2010 10:58 AM writes...

People who are passionate about their work will *want* to work all the time.

And yes, those who are passionate about their work do much better job at it then those who are not (all else being equal).

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35. processchemist on September 30, 2010 11:12 AM writes...


Sure, and they don't want to be paid for their work, and they eat only a dish of rice once a day.
Ever heard the word "compulsive behaviour"?

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36. PDF on September 30, 2010 11:16 AM writes...

Here is a European's comment: I did my PhD at a Max-Planck Institute, and I have never seen a more motivated and capable crowd, which at the same time knew to appreciate the good things in life (beer, hobbies, partners). Research there was great - everyone was part of the team. We would all put in extra hours if necessary but no one forced us to do so - people rarely worked on the weekend. And this was a good strategy - everyone believed in their work, felt good about their work, and we all were successful despite the apparently shorter hours.

Now I am a PDF in North America and this whole "put in 80 hours or I will fire you" attitude of some PIs coupled to a sometimes extreme competitiveness of the PhD students and PDFs (that apparently seems to be widespread?) feels rather annoying and pointless. Some people never seem to have heard of the word "teamwork" but rack hours like crazy.

More hours in the lab do not mean better research. Forcing people to stay in the lab definitely does not mean better research. And if your lab work is the only thing you have in your life that is pretty damn sad if you ask me.

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37. PlatoMolloy on September 30, 2010 11:18 AM writes...

Anyone else notice that this guy used to work at Ann Arbor? I wonder if he thinks you need 100 hrs a week in lab because if you don't your cell lines get poisoned?