Working hours

Today’s short rant is not on science, but rather on the process of science. This tweet by Erika Salomon really resonated with me. It is about working hours in academia. Erika calls for academics to call out when someone asks students (or colleagues for that matter) to work for unreasonable hours.

Consider this my pledge for support. Upfront, I apologize for some strong language in this post.

Academia is facing a serious problem with regard to working ethos. Sure, it is great if you love your job so much you are willing to put in more than 60, or even 80 hours per week. It is great is you love your job so much that you are willing to move abroad, dragging along your significant other, and tolerating a string of temporary contracts before you finally can settle somewhere.

It is not so great that this work ethos has become the standard. I have put in 60 to 80 hours per week for my PhD. It resulted in a pretty good thesis, with some nice, well cited (and replicated ;-)) papers. I did move abroad, and dragged along my significant other. It did land me a nice, permanent position, even with prospect of promotion. I am a really happy little camper.

But I cannot (and do not) put in 60 to 80 hours per week any more. Over the past five years, we (as a happy family of four) have struggled with cancer, anxiety, and depression, and the one thing this has taught me is that no job is worth sacrificing your personal well-being. Especially not an academic job. You, your significant other (if you have one in your life), and if you have them, your children are more important than anything else. Those hours you spend writing on your grant proposal in your attic office are hours you cannot play with your kids, and cannot enjoy taking a long walk with your wife (or husband). And although you take them for granted, they are not. Inge (my wife) was 30 when she felt a lump in her breast. Six weeks later she was in surgery, eight weeks later getting her first chemo to treat an aggressive, triple-negative breast cancer. Now, almost exactly five years after her first visit to the GP, her cancer is in full remission. Our kids were 3 and 1, respectively when all this happened. Only now, we are slowly getting back on track. This kind of sh*t really has a tendency of messing up your life and shifting your priorities, I can tell you.

So, even though I am only 36 (37 next week), and I am considered to be ‘young’/’early career’ scientist, who should be putting in a lot of time and work to secure these ‘prestigious’ personal grants, like the Dutch ‘Vidi’ or even a ‘Vici’, and publish work in the ‘top-journals’ to progress my career, really, f*ck that sh*t.

I am not wasting my time anymore on stuff that’s only for ‘helping my career’. I am doing this job because I am fascinated by what I study (yes, psi, amongst other things. Got a problem with that?), and I love teaching. Not for the sake of becoming a hotshot professor anymore.  Would be nice along the line, but really, it’s not worth it to sacrifice my sanity and precious time with my family for. It’s the very least thing I can do for them, and especially for my wife, who moved all across Europe with me, leaving behind family and friends, and a job she loved, all for the sake of my career. It is just too sad that it took a family crisis for me to realize that.

Sadly, though, when it gets to putting in working hours in academia it’s kind of a nuclear arms race. If I don’t put in the time, someone else will, get out more papers, and thus secure the grants, and earn tenure/promotions/etc.

That has to change. The intense competition in this field is not normal. We have become addicted to prospect of publishing high-impact papers, for crying out loud! This is not very healthy, as indicated by the incidence of stress-related mental health problems many academics suffer from. I have seen too many people going down over the past years, burning themselves out, just to play the game. We have patted ourselves on the back for a while, believing that competition and focus on output made our field better, but it has become very painfully evident that this is not the case. Science is broken, but scientists as well.

The intense pressure that many young scientists feel permeates all aspects of life. Job security depends on the grants you get. The grants you’ll get depend on your papers. As a PhD student, you do not know whether you’ll get that postdoc. As a postdoc, your next international move is just another two years away. When finally landed that tenure-track position, it’s up or out… You’re financially dependent on your job performance, you have to compete with the smartest people in the world, so as long as you do not have the security of a permanent position, you’re going to work your ass off.

However, I think that most scientists might find themselves in a similar position as myself: we were the clever kids in school. The clever students during our undergraduate studies. Our friends, families, and teachers saw great promise in us, starting from an early age on. I think that few people in my direct surroundings have imagined me growing up to be anything else than a university professor. For me, unconsciously this has become part of my identity. Professor was not my job description, but who I was. You can imagine that this results in some messed up perceptions of a healthy work-life balance. Moreover, academic rejections, disputes and failures feel like, no, are personal failures – if you do not get that grant, it means someone else is better than you. Did someone else fail to replicate your paper – that means a personal attack! I am sure I am not the only one for whom this is true. Only over the past two to three years I have learnt to let go, and accept that I am more than an academic, that ‘academic’ is just my job description. It’s not who I am. It was (and is, and will be) quite a struggle, but for the better.

The combination of economic and personal insecurity makes academics so vulnerable for work related stress. We work harder than we should, and we will not easily speak up because we have created an awful system for ourselves that feeds upon our own vulnerabilities. It has to stop.

I cannot fix this, nor do I want to give my students the impression that things will change on the very short term. If we want to change the system, and stop it from exploiting our vulnerabilities, change has to occur on several levels. Policy makers need to stop thinking science can be evaluated on purely quantitative measures. Granting agencies need to stop funding people, and start funding ideas. Universities need to provide job security earlier on, and evaluate how an academic functions within the context of a department or school, rather than looking at how well someone has succeeded in establishing her or his own little fiefdom without burning out, which is the current practice.

However, these changes are slow. They will occur, though. We see them happening already. Many great people are already speaking out against the ridiculous competition in science, and against the ridiculous ideas about quantifying research quality. But it will take time. Besides, we need to change as well. As long as we are addicted to scoring our high impact papers things will not change.

So, if you’re working on your PhD, and feeling worn out, here are some words from a young guy who sometimes feels quite a bit older than he is: research is awesome. But put it into perspective. In the grand scheme of things, that paper you are working on right now, late in the evening, is not so important. Maybeit gets read by a few hundred people. Maybe it gets some media attention, but people will forgot that in a few weeks anyway. And if you’re really unlucky, in a couple of years, some smug replicators will try to replicate your study, fail, and your result ends up on the enormous heap op false positives in the literature. So, really, is the time you are spending on this paper right now worth it to not be with the people you love? Your paper will be there for you tomorrow morning, 9:00, when you get back to your desk. Trust me.

And is that course you need to teach bothering you because it gets in the way of your precious research? Think about it this way – your research has limited impact. Again – a couple of hundred people may read it, and knowing scientitsts, most of them will find it crap, anyway. But your teaching — I did a quick calculation, but since I started my academic career 15 years ago, I think I have taught over 3000 students in classes, supervised at least 100 bachelor theses, and over 50 master theses. Personally, I have enjoyed the many conversations I had with my students, helping them realize their potential, and seeing them grow and find their own way far and far more than any glowing comment I got on any of my papers. Talking about impact…

And that academic job? Well… several of my PhD-friends have not found an academic job, either. One of them has become a house painter. Last I heard from him was he is now happier than ever before in academia. Let that sink in for while.

Anyway, enough rambling. Time to act like my own age again, and not like grandpa. Folks, it was my pleasure, I’m going to check in on the kids, give them a nightly kiss, and then tuck in for the night. That paper I was going to write can wait until tomorrow 😉