Normalizing the intolerable


I tell you, the Careers section of Science magazine is a perpetual source of pain and aggravation. In the latest, Eleftherios Diamandis explains exactly what you need to do to be a success in science. The secret, apparently, is to be noticed, and the way to be noticed is…by doing exactly the same thing all the other lab rats on the exercise wheel are doing.

Be an excellent scholar. Publish well. Work hard. Communicate with the public and your peers. But a well-planned, long-range effort to ensure your visibility among those who have hiring responsibilities can be the deciding factor.

Wait, that last bit is important. So how do we increase our visibility with the people doing the hiring? Unfortunately, his answer is…work really hard. It’s about the most useless advice to scientists ever. Our problem is that we’re ridiculously over-worked as it is, and the useful advice for any new scientist is the opposite: learn to say no. Focus. Prioritize. Don’t forget that you’ve got a life outside the lab to live. But apparently it’s more important for Dr Diamandis to pat himself on the back really hard for working so much. I guess that’s one way to get noticed.

The sad thing is that he already knows that the demands of this profession are excessive. He’s just not aware of it.

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

Let’s take that apart, shall we?

He’s not exceptional. 16 hour days aren’t unusual; I’d hoped that it would lighten up as I got more seniority, but it doesn’t, and now it’s long hours grading student papers on top of everything else. And it’s still ridiculous.

Add to those long hours the fact that in order to get a position at all, you’re expected to put in 9-10 years of college and grad school training. There’s more: in biology, you’re expected to do a post-doc or two, so make that 12-15 years of training before you can even apply for a real job.

A real job, that is, that typically pays about $50,000/year starting. And demands those 16 hour days. And does not have those strange concepts of “overtime” or even “vacation”.

There’s more! That job, once you get it, has a built-in clock. Five years later, you will be evaluated, and you will either be rewarded with tenure (yes, you get to keep your job! Now we also get to add a bunch of committee work to it), or…you’re fired. It’s very black or white. If you don’t make the cut, you get thrown right back onto the job market, only now you’ve got a black mark on your record, and you get to compete with people 5 years younger than you are.

I love what I do, teaching and developmental biology, but still — there has been an unrealistic and gradual ramping up of the requirements to do this work, and a steady decrease in the likelihood of actually succeeding at it. It does not help to have useful idiots praising the system and making 16 hour workdays seem normal. They shouldn’t be. They are the consequence of an anti-intellectual society that demands excessive sacrifices from scholars, that does not value academic work and cuts the rewards to the bone in a way that would not be tolerated if we tried to pull this crap on bus drivers or custodians or civil servants.

It also requires eliminating part of your humanity. You want family, kids, a life outside the lab? You need a wife to do that work for you. Now there’s a fine way to perpetuate sexist attitudes! Note how he phrases it, too: she worked far less than he did, as if the fact that he only came home to sleep didn’t vastly increase her work load at home.

But I can sympathize. I did exactly the same thing. When my wife and I graduated with Ph.D.s, we made a rational decision. I had better prospects for getting a job, biology paid better than psychology, she was more burned out on the academic life, we had a child and we clearly couldn’t both succeed in academia at the same time while raising a family. So I got got post-docs and applied for tenure-track jobs, while she put full time into raising the kids, and once they were a little older, did part-time adjunct work.

It was entirely reasonable. It was the only choice given the circumstances. But we ought to question the fucking premises.

Why are these jobs so incompatible with family life? This is life out of balance. As much as I love biology, I gave up significant participation in the life of my wife and children. Was this a good bargain? The older I get, the less I think so. I see young people going into these careers now, and what I want to say, with the benefit of hindsight, is “Don’t buy into the game. Demand that you get to live the life of a human being. Don’t let a goddamned grant proposal get in the way of spending evenings with your kids now.” But I also know the system will not reward people who defy the inhumanity of its demands. People, like Diamandis, who cheerfully accept the unacceptable, will advance.

We would have had to struggle even harder if my wife and I switched roles. But why? We have the same educational backgrounds — we attended the same university and grad school at the same time. She’s as smart as I am, or smarter — her grades were better than mine. She put the same amount of effort into her work as I did, or more. We’re a matched pair, with the only difference being that she’s a woman and studied psychology rather than biology. Should either of those things make a difference? They shouldn’t, but they do. Why aren’t we arguing about that?

She was less happy with academic life as a student, and that wasn’t right, either. I got the kind of encouragement and the expectation that once I got my degree, I would move on further; I don’t think she had a particularly awful graduate experience, but I think there was less positive reinforcement, less of an assumption that there was an anticipated future track for her. The simple message, “I think you should apply for this post-doc or that grant” is an affirmation that you are part of the program, and I got a heck of a lot more of that than she did.

When you’re a woman with a young child, I think everyone figures that’s your next big project, not a post-doc. When I was doing most of the child care in those last few months of her degree (I was going to lab meetings with my kid, too), everyone figured this is temporary, and my wife will take over again once she finishes. That’s a discouraging difference for one member of our family.

I benefitted from the system. Diamandis is very cheerfully profiting from it, he thinks. But going with the status quo means that the biases in the system are perpetuated forever, and as long as part of the academic deal is the assumption that you either have no home life, or a partner who does all the work for you, we’re never going to achieve any kind of equality. Inequality is built into the deal.

You know, if we actually demanded an end to the insane requirements of the academic life, not only would that open the door to greater diversity, but we men (and women) already imbedded in academia would be able to live better and happier lives. Criticize the system! Don’t just blandly accept it, like Diamandis.


  1. The Other Lance says

    Don’t worry. Just work some more hours. It’ll help the U.S. pulls it’s economy up by the bootstraps! “Jeb!” said so!

  2. dianne says

    He left out the most critical factor: Be a straight white man. If you must, you can be a gay white man in the closet. But the white and male parts are critical to your success because otherwise your colleagues just won’t notice you no matter what you do.

  3. says

    He also left out another significant factor: luck. Did you discover something bankable? Did you get on the latest scientific bandwagon in time?

  4. dianne says

    Luck’s important. As is being interested in the “right” thing for the time. EE Just is not well known partly because he was black, but partly because he was working on cytoplasm in the first age of the gene. Totally unfair, BTW: his discoveries were at least as important as, say, what Watson and Crick stole from Wilkins and Franklin.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    I have had a far easier time working in Silicon Valley, but even here it is far too common for managers to treat their employees as labor units rather than people. It is so common for job descriptions to include very tightly written skill sets, often skills that can only be gained on the job. So you get a vicious circle of job openings that only accept those with skills they can only acquire if someone else was willing to hire them initially without those skills.
    Further, I have seen far too often that when employees’ skills become obsolete, the company just lays them off, and then tries to hire new people with new skills pre-loaded, often trying to find them overseas to save money. That is a big reason why SV CEOs are always complaining that there aren’t enough H-1b visas available, they want to import cheap foreign labor to replace their existing American employees.

  6. says

    I feel pretty much disposed like trash of by science as an industry because of this situation. My experience of graduate school and my career is pretty solidly associated with pain because of the experience of my diagnosis of ADHD and Tourette’s Syndrome at 33 while in graduate school preparing to put together my project for graduation and the events after that. No one including me had any idea what to do with that information. I was essentially told that I should just give up and leave by my advisers.

    No one would talk about it. To be honest I did not either because I had no idea what to do with that information (how can such a system take this stuff into account and proactively be supportive of a transition?), but I’m certain that trying to get them to actually accommodate it would have been like pulling teeth. Trying to talk to the people I used to work under just to try to get a grip on how my ADHD and TS impacted on my work has been impossible. They just squirm around it and when I get explicit they stop responding. Had I finished my PhD and moved on that 80+ hour a week life would have been impossible while figuring my mind out and trying to have enough of a private life to stay sane.

    Imagine all of the people being selected right out of a science career by this mess, and the average mental health of the ones that manage to stay in.

  7. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The RWA types have a hard time believing me, when I tell them when I went to industry from academia, the first two things that happened is working hours dropped by a third, and my pay went up 50%. They presuppositionally see professors as lazy and overpaid, especially at public universities.

  8. says

    16 hour days aren’t unusual; I’d hoped that it would lighten up as I got more seniority, but it doesn’t…

    Where do you get the time to blog so much then? Do you sleep? Are you a cyborg?!?

  9. Arkady says

    Reason no. eleventy-mumble that I’m currently working as a technician rather than a postdoc, with a long term goal of lab management, pharma or government science (if they’re even hiring at Public Health England when my current contract ends, given the current government here). I’ve largely given up on NHS diagnostic work, wasn’t good enough at logic picture puzzles to get my job application to the stage where it was seen by a human and in any case that whole part of the NHS is probably now at risk of being privatised. My current lab at least doesn’t have as much of a long-hours culture as my old lab did, but my current university having had an out-of-hours liquid nitrogen fatality several years ago and an academic suicide last year, there’s definitely a reason for that!

  10. throwaway, butcher of tongues, mauler of metaphor says

    PZ @11

    #9: Easy. I get up at 5:30am, type while drinking coffee, and go to work at 8:30. What are you doing at that hour?

    Driving to work.

  11. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    PZ – Thank you

    This is exactly the kind of statement-from-the-insider that we need to change the system.

  12. says

    How does it make sense to simultaneously overwork employees and also make job openings so scarce that you need to “stand out”?

    As someone who recently graduated from engineering undergrad, there’s plenty of ridiculousness everywhere I look in the job search world.

  13. karmacat says

    A lot of doctors now are not working really long hours and have more of a balance between family and life. It may be related to there being more women doctors but it may be just coincidence. Male doctors often do want to have time with their family

  14. Sunday Afternoon says

    @Nerd, #8:
    I agree. A long time ago I moved to the US when my then wife got a postdoc at Stanford. The pay she got was truly a pittance (remember, this was Stanford!). The high-tech job that I landed 6 months later paid vastly, and I mean vastly more for a new PhD than what Stanford was paying.

    I had a hard time justifying my decision to “sell out” at the time. In retrospect I shouldn’t have been so worried.

  15. OptimalCynic says

    I don’t see this changing while there’s a vastly higher number of people wanting academic jobs than there’s slots for them. Marx analysed this very well with his concept of the reserve army of the unemployed.

  16. brett says

    It’s not just academic work – our society just in general relies way, way too much on “how many hours you put into work” as some metric for status or quality. When in reality it’s total bullshit – productivity declines hard beyond eight hours a day of work, and for “knowledge workers” it’s a mere six hours a day. Anything beyond that should be used sparingly at best, with “sprints” of longer hours surrounded by much longer periods of rest and lower hours. *

    *Side-note on that article – I have no idea about that characterization of Silicon Valley workers (it’s probably a major exaggeration). But the greater point still stands.

  17. says

    I don’t see this changing while there’s a vastly higher number of people wanting academic jobs than there’s slots for them.

    well, there IS this thing called unionization. it’s what got us the 40 hour week in the first place,and it’s likely the only thing that’ll ever get it back.

  18. says

    anyway, apparently step 1 in how to have a successful career in science is “get married too a woman”, and step 2 is “throw HER academic career under the bus” :-/

  19. says

    @OptimalCynic 18

    I don’t see this changing while there’s a vastly higher number of people wanting academic jobs than there’s slots for them. Marx analysed this very well with his concept of the reserve army of the unemployed.


    These two interacting cycles, he says, fit patterns of instability across Europe and Asia from the fifth century BC onwards. Together, they describe the bumpy transition of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire in the first century BC. He sees the same patterns in ancient Egypt, China and Russia, and says that they explain the timing of last year’s Egyptian uprising, which took the regime of then-president Hosni Mubarak by surprise. At the time, the Egyptian economy was growing and poverty levels were among the lowest in the developing world, so the regime could reasonably have expected stability. In the decade leading up to the revolution, however, the country saw a quadrupling of graduates with no prospects — a marker of elite overproduction and hence, Turchin argues, trouble.

  20. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    @Brian Pansky #15

    How does it make sense to simultaneously overwork employees and also make job openings so scarce that you need to “stand out”?

    Mostly because most academics while they may be working a 16 hour day, are only paid for 7.5 of those hours. But if they don’t do the 16 hour day then they don’t have enough time to get done all the things that are required of them. But various ‘workload’ models pretend that we have enough time to do all this stuff (and here even get some vacation time). This tends to be less than accurate. Myself I was in a support role for a while and am now doing much more academic stuff, and due to scheduling no longer have any weeks where leave is possible, but supposedly am only just reaching my ‘workload’ model. I probably will never reach a higher position because I don’t care enough to give up my social life and sleep.

  21. Rey Fox says

    People at the top love it when the underlings work lots and lots. See also: Bush, Jeb.

  22. says


    I’ve often wondered who benefits from the “work extra hours.” The workers certainly don’t (other than being able to keep their jobs, which makes that a circular argument.) The bosses/companies don’t, as you’ve pointed out. Is it some form of hazing: “I had to bust my ass 16 hours a day, and so will you, if you want to belong to the ‘club’.”

    This has really stood out to me watching doctors during their residency. Who benefits from a doctor who’s been awake for most of the past 72 hours? The patient? Not likely. The doctor? You don’t learn much when your brain is in maximum exhaustion mode. The hospital? I suppose they save money, unless you factor in the potential for expensive medical mistakes. Again, I think it’s mostly because “that’s the way it’s always been” and nobody has the guts to change it.

    I’m one of those knowledge workers — software engineer — and I learned early on that there was a point beyond which I shouldn’t go. No matter what the job is demanding, I have to step back and rest or my output is going to be useless. It does nobody any good if I work for 12 hours then have to take another 4 hours to undo the mistakes of the previous session. Why not get two productive 8 hour sessions over the same number of days?

  23. dianne says

    @25: Residents’ working hours actually have been cut substantially in the past two decades. They’re still not easy, but the 72 hours in a row work is, at least in principle, a thing of the past. The problem is that no one has put any restrictions on attending physicians’ working hours so doctors are getting burned out at a ridiculous rate, but only after finishing residency and therefore being that much more committed to the career.

  24. says

    @Jadehawk, 20

    well, there IS this thing called unionization. it’s what got us the 40 hour week in the first place,and it’s likely the only thing that’ll ever get it back.

    Ya I’m actually kind of confused. Why is this 40 hour work week thing being broken? How is that happening? Isn’t it illegal? Aren’t there some people who just refuse?

  25. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Part of it is not wanting to lose the job you currently have. Part of it is not actually wanting to give students a sub-standard education. (I’m meant, for a standard unit, not including exams, to be able to mark all a student’s work, including giving helpful feedback, within 1.5 hours. Total. For the semester. This includes a unit that has 2 problem solving assignments, 5 labs, 5 quizzes and various other tutorial work to give feedback on. Oh and a scientific report).

  26. Sonja says

    If you learn to write code, there is a huge demand for Software Engineers. Many jobs start at $90,000 and you don’t need more than an undergrad degree. Also the hours are closer to 9-5:00. A lot of the work is very interesting. I know programmers that are coding for agricultural drones, 3D printers, and electronic musical instruments. Also we need more women in the field!

  27. says

    There are four PhDs that I know of where I work (including myself) – a chemist, a biologist, an engineer and a statistician… we all ended up one way or another in the finance industry, and we all have more free time, money and career prospects than we ever did in science. Science was fun for a while, but I would never advise someone to make a career of it… its just not worth the effort. What annoys me most though is how the system of grad school is infected with this cult like belief that everything you do must be in self-sacrifice to the lab, that any career not in science is a mark of failure, and there must be no deviation from your studies into fields that may be more profitable (e.g., taking comp sci or business courses while doing your PhD.)

  28. OptimalCynic says

    Unionisation doesn’t work when there’s a substantial number of people who value the job more than solidarity.

  29. Dark Jaguar says

    They also tend to expect these ridiculous hours because “I did it and I survived”, which is sorta the same attitude that all too many old time factory workers had when the push to switch to a 40 hour work week happened. The video game industry too has far too much overtime as the “norm”. I can’t even comprehend working that hard. I’d burn out any enthusiasm I ever had for a career path if that was just my ENTIRE life. Maybe that’s why I’m not “cut out” to have dreams.

  30. andyb says

    I don’t see the status quo as intolerale. if you want to be at a R1, research should be your passion. working long hours is not a sacrifice if it’s not work.

    I found teaching to be rough the first few years (which is frustrating, because it’s important to get a research program established early), but it gets a lot easier after you teach a class a few times.

    There are a lot of entry level, salaried jobs that make raising children difficult (especially those that require a lot of travel.)

    I agree that acadamia requires that you put off having children, and it can be particularily difficult on women. I was 37 whe my first was born. My wife is an instructor (and gets paid well in my opinion). She could go back for a PhD, and look for a tenure track job, but it wouldn’t be worth the investment. Raising childre is easier at non-R1 institutions, but I don’t know a good solution for the top tier. Perhaps more part-time tenure track positons – but there’s a positive feedback where the more you publish, and get funded, the more you are recognized, and the easier it becomes to attract good students, post-docs and fund the next grant.

    One of the challenging aspects of acadamia, is you have to move a lot, and probably have to live far from family. Tenure offers stability not found in many jobs (although I’m in the UW system, so all bets are off right now.)