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.