Monthly Archives: July 2015

Work Is Work

Yeah, that title oversimplifies things a bit, but, as promised, here’s my post on why my treatise on the 40 hour work week probably does apply to success at all levels of science, even at the R1.

The basic premise is this: success at an R1 is not based on being more intelligent, or a harder worker, compared with success at any other level of academic (or, indeed, nonacademic science). Academic science is what I know, so I’m going to stick with that. I hold the firm conviction, based on experience and data (if you want lots of links, please go read this blog post, not one of mine, but absolutely excellent), that the 40-hour work week is coming close to a hard limit for most people, in terms of their ability to be productive. The vast majority of people appear to have a work limit of 45 hours or less. Beyond that, you’re less productive, you start making mistakes, and you start hating your life. (That last bit is my add-on, based on observing people in labs where they’re expected to work 70-hour weeks.)

Really simplistically, let’s say you have a personal work limit of 45 hours. You keep working, and you make a mistake. Let’s say that mistake requires you to do a five-hour experiment over. Well, then, you might as well have stopped at 35 hours, given that you’ve not only wasted time, you’ve cost yourself some.

Now, I concede that bell curves being what they are (bad stand-ins for human variability, mostly), there will be the occasional person with a much longer work limit. Even people in the 70-hour range. But I don’t for a second delude myself into thinking that this particular exception applies to all scientists. Nope, not even the ones who manage to “make it” at an R1.

We have managed (“we” here refers to academic science, but could also refer to American Puritanical Work Until You Die culture) to make ourselves believe that science is a calling, and one that requires your entire being, such that you should not only expect to put in 70 hour weeks, but you should LOVE it. I had one advisor tell me this (the only one who ever said anything like that to me): you can’t do science unless you love it, because it’s hard, and it’s 24/7.

Well, bullshit. For a start, it’s a job. It’s a job you quite possibly do love, and that makes you extraordinarily fortunate. But it is a job. It’s work. Love it or not, you will come to hate it if it’s all you do. (Again, there will be exceptions. Isaac Asimov, who was somewhat famous for his amazing work ethic, used to start writing at 7:30 each morning, and not stop until 10:30 at night, except to eat, get the mail, have lunch with colleagues, visit with family, etc. All of those things were described, by him, as “resented distractions”. He appears to have absolutely loved his work to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. But you’re probably not Isaac Asimov.)

So, it’s a job. But it’s a job we’ve been indoctrinated to think requires you to be at it 24/7. Actual time in lab, for people who have recently complained to me of this, and for those I personally observed in three R1 labs over the course of my own career (including myself until I burned out in my fifth year of grad school): 10 hour days are common, 7 days a week. 70 hours. Every week. For years.

No way is that sustainable. No way are you productive for what may even be half the time you’re at work. That is just wasted time you could be using to read a book, or go to the beach, or to the movies, or take your children to the park, or have sex, or sleep. (Sleep is wonderful. I have two small children, so I didn’t sleep for most of three years. Sleep is now one of my favorite things to do.)

But people buy it. One of the common refrains I hear when I say that you can, indeed, succeed on 40 hours a week is along the lines of, “I believe there are some people who can do it, but they’re rare.” Usually something about brilliance is added here.

All of the above is to get me to this: success at an R1 is a crapshoot. It requires four things: brains, hard work, connections, and luck. Two of those (brains and work) are common to pretty much everyone at every level of academic science. The “connections” aspect is probably stronger among those at R1s. But it doesn’t require that 70-hour week to achieve. The last, luck…is just luck.

Let’s start with publishing. To get that R1 job, you probably do need to publish in Cell, Science, or Nature (CSN). Okay, great. But I’m here to tell you that publishing in CSN is more about luck and who you know that it is about good science. The exact same story might get desk rejected by one editor for not being “sexy” enough, while another loves it. The editor you send it to, if you have any control over it at all, will hopefully be someone you know. Unfair, but true. Connections. The reviewers you get may all be Reviewer 3, or they may be reasonable people. Luck. (Also, possibly connections if they know and respect you.) Ultimately, whether that’s a CSN paper or the next tier down isn’t about how good your science is or how many hours you put in to generate the data.

Next up: funding. Holy shit, such a crapshoot. It’s heavily weighted towards it being easier to get money if you already have money, and it’s also really biased towards people with good “pedigree”. That is, who trained you? Connections. Whether your study section scores you high enough to get funded, given the ever-decreasing percentage of successful grants (okay, at NSF this may not be true. Seems stable recently) is also about luck. Yes, some will be amazing grants, top of the heap. Everything closer to the funding line…really seems to depend on who reviews it. Ask someone who’s resubmitted the same grant after addressing the reviewers’ concerns and gotten a LOWER score with the new panel about that.

So you get your R1 job by getting lucky enough, and knowing enough people, to publish in high-impact journals. You keep it (read: get tenure) by continuing to publish in high-impact journals and getting funded. You have to be lucky, and you have to know the right people.

That’s not hard work. That’s networking and luck. It doesn’t take 70 hours a week.

The work is the same. A qPCR in my lab is the same as a qPCR in a lab at Harvard (actually, it’s harder and probably takes more time, not less, in my lab. Because undergrads and limited resources/infrastructure).The amount of data required to put together a good story (for a reasonable, not-insane journal) is about the same. Writing a grant is EXACTLY the same. I send my grants to the same study sections people at R1s do, only my PUI grants tend to have a lower funding rate. (There are a few PUI- and minority-serving-specific pools, but the amount of money in them is smaller, so there’s no advantage there.)

Yes, I write fewer grants, because I run a somewhat scaled-down lab, AND because I don’t pay most of my people. Which is a bummer. But, here’s the thing: I make up for it with teaching. I guarantee you most faculty with R01 grants don’t teach a 3-course load. I guarantee they aren’t teaching 20 hours a week.

So, since this all started as a discussion of postdoc hours, let me revisit the numbers I was playing with on Twitter:

In my (undergraduate, so half time at best except in summer) lab, we shoot for each person getting one result a week. There should always be an experiment coming out, one being set up, and, ideally, one underway that isn’t done. The papers I write tend to have about 15 panels. Four to five figures, 3-4 panels per figure. So, that’s 15 weeks. But only about 1/3 of experiments result in publishable data. Make that 45 weeks. Theoretically, if 1/3 of your experiments work, and you have just one result per week, one person can generate data for a paper in a year. Now, you do have to repeat the experiments, so figure at least twice that long.

So, that’s my lab. One competent undergrad or MS student can generate a paper in two years. These folks work about half time. Less during classes, often. Assuming you are a Ph.D. student whose classes are done, or a postdoc working full-time, I’d think you could do it in a year. Two results a week. Maybe not a CSN paper, since those damned things tend to be padded with every experiment and the kitchen sink just to try and avoid the unavoidable year of revisions, but a good paper nonetheless. (By the way, if more than 2/3 of your experiments don’t work, it might be worth asking yourself if you’re working too hard and making mistakes because of it.)

So. Are you telling me that you really don’t believe that a person can generate two results a week in 40 hours, with time left over to read, write, etc.? Because, again, I’m not buying it. I’ve seen it done. If you want to see it done, look to the women in your R1 labs. The ones with kids, especially. They’re doing it because they have to. And they’re often getting shit about their “dedication to science” over it, when they’re the most productive people in your lab, by the hour.

If you say you don’t think it can be done, I want you to step back and ask yourself: have you tried? Has ANYONE you know tried, or has everyone assumed it can’t be done? I say you don’t know. Because we were all too scared to see what would happen if we stopped being in lab 10 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Work is work. It’s not harder, or even much MORE, at an R1. People just want to believe that they can control the uncontrollable by working harder at it.

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Time Management

Last night, and again this morning, I had a Twitterant about how it is SO possible to work a 40 hour week and still be successful as an academic scientist. Predictably, some folks always object that, sure, for MY definition of success, which is professorship at a primarily undergraduate university. But, you know, I chose not to be a “real” PI – I decided the R1 wasn’t for me, because I like to teach and don’t love writing grants. So I decided to shift my balance towards something I like.

The underlying assumption of the argument is that, sure, you can succeed at a PUI (Primarily Undergraduate Institution) on a “normal” work week, but not if your goal is to be faculty at an R1. Also, the unspoken assumption, often, is that if you guard your 40 hours, you’re lazy. But both of those are for my next post.

A couple of people expressed interest in my ability to maintain a 40-hour week and be productive, which I have been doing for over a decade now. There was enthusiasm for reading the details. So…here it is. In one blog post. Disclaimer: this is what works for ME. I have refined this system over the course of years. I took what I liked from a lot of places, and made some of it up to suit my own brain and work style.

Let’s start with what I do. I am an assistant professor, five years into my position at a PUI that expects both teaching and a significant amount of research/scholarship (read: papers and grants). Barring something really unfortunate happening, I will get tenure this coming May. Tooting my own horn a bit, I am very successful at what I do. And I do it on 40 (or fewer) hours a week.

Why? Well, because of my other life choices. I’m married. I have two kids in school/daycare, with schedules that are not optional. But even if I didn’t have a family at home to take care of…everyone should have something they do with their time away from work. A significant something that takes a lot of their time. Mine, currently, is young children.

So, how do I manage my work time? Start with the assumption that I have a maximum of 40 hours to work with in a week. Because that’s what I’m willing to do, and I have set my boundaries there.

My current teaching load (pre-tenure) is three classes. One of these I get released from because I have a large lab, so I get teaching credit for the undergrads and grad students I teach there. (FYI, in my college, to get the maximum release of one course (3 units), you have to have either 6 MS students or 9 undergrads, or some combination – 1/2 a unit per MS student, 1/3 per UG. I have 16 students, 4 MS and 12 UG, currently. So I maxed out and then some.)

That leaves two classes, which, for me, is 1.5 hours in class per day M-Th. I have group meeting for about that long on Fridays. Then figure an additional 0.5 per day for other student contact (office hours, advising). I have approximately 8 hours of student face time per week. Add to that at LEAST an equivalent amount of prep/grading, and it becomes 15-20 hours per week of teaching time.

The rest of my time is to be spent on: research, service, writing, curriculum development (NOT to be confused with prepping my current classes), and “other”.

So, I have about 20 hours of unspoken for time in a week. I translate this into a weekly to do list that has no more than 20 items on it. EVER. In fact, I am more regimented than that: I have my five categories, above, and each gets no more than four items per week. All meetings go on this list, so “service” often includes 2 or 3 hour-long meetings. These count towards my to dos, because I have to do them.

“But,” you say, “what if you don’t HAVE four service items in a week?” Well, unless this is summer, it is to laugh. But if I’m short, the list stays short. We’ll see why in a few paragraphs.

Each item on each list (I keep a master list each week with all five minilists on it) much take only 1-2 hours to complete. If shorter, great – that helps accommodate stuff that’s closer to 2 hours than 1 hour. What this means is that there is no task entitled “write manuscript”. A manuscript is at least 15 separate tasks entitled things like, “Write introduction,” and “revise Figures 1 and 2”. A 15-page grant is 5-10 separate items, “write pages 1-3”, etc.

So large tasks get broken down, FORMALLY, into small tasks. They don’t seem overwhelming, they are harder to procrastinate, and they are DOABLE in a single chunk of time. (Incidentally, I have yet another list that includes grants and papers I’m working on, with each divided up by separate mini tasks. I check stuff off and go there when I need to figure out what’s going on this week’s “writing” list. I like lists.)

On Monday morning, when my butt hits the seat, I fire up my computer, and pull together my Weekly Master List from all the places tasks are kept. (Google calendar for meetings, lab meeting schedule to help me figure out which students I need to chat with this week, paper/grants list for writing, etc.) I make the list. 20 items or fewer. It’s done on paper. I found I couldn’t do this electronically.

Then I make Monday’s list of goals. I have an app (Timeful) for this. I pull four items from the week’s list, and add them to the empty spaces in my calendar for the day. EVERYTHING GETS SCHEDULED. Everything. Everything has a deadline. Timeful chats to my Google Calendar, too, which means I can’t accidentally schedule something on top of something else. Incidentally, I lied. I have five goals per day, but one is a repeater: every day, “set today’s goals” is first up. Takes less than 15 minutes. Scheduled, most days, from 9 to 9:15 a.m.

So I get started. Whatever is first, I start there. I check it off when it’s done. If it takes less time than I thought, great. Maybe I go for a walk. (By the way, schedule your walks or other exercise.) I always take at least a 5-minute break between tasks, because it’s good for me.

If something is taking longer than the time I have for it, I stop (barring an immediate deadline). I take it up again tomorrow. This is where those empty spaces come in: if a list doesn’t have four things on it, that lets me sometimes have one that bleeds over into two tasks. It also lets me handle things that arrive in my inbox on fire, and need to be handled NOW. If I have unfilled spaces, I don’t make up work to put in them. They’ll fill up on their own. (That said, all 20 slots are usually spoken for. What happens then, when something is on fire, is that the lowest-priority task for this week gets bumped to next week.)

Every day, M-F, I put four things on my list. Every day, I work really hard to finish all four by 5:00. Every day, I leave at 5, even if I only finished 3/4 tasks.

It works. I don’t sit for an hour trying to remember what I need to do. I do have limits – if I’m done, I’m done. Yay for me. I can surf the net for a bit, write a blog post, etc. If I finish REALLY early, I may pull another task down and do it, and get – gasp! – ahead. I often don’t finish all 20 in a week. But, hey, doing 15 things in a week is pretty awesome. Really.

I wrote an NSF grant this way this month. And a manuscript. I have lectures prepped for two Fall courses through the end of September.

So, there you have it. I am a compulsive list-maker. I make lists at work and at home. I plan as far ahead as is feasible. My husband probably thinks I’m a crazy person, looking at my Google Calendar with all its oddly-specific “meetings”. But it works for me.

It works very well. I am well-funded (yes, for my institution, but grant writing is grant writing), I publish, I am a spectacularly good teacher, and I am about to get tenure. And I am very happy, and only barely feel like I work too hard (two kids will do that to you).

Tomorrow or Friday, I’ll talk about how what I do isn’t less work, or less DIFFICULT work, than what others do that they say can’t be done in 40 hours.

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