Relax, Young Physicists; Relax

By Mark Trodden | December 28, 2005 6:08 pm

Well, it’s about half way through the time that I might generously include in “the Holiday period” and I must say that, as usual, I’m loving it. So long as religion doesn’t get in the way of the rampant commercialism and overindulgence that give the Holidays true meaning, I’m a very happy camper at this time of year.

Yes, it’s true, I love the presents – that’s a given. But what I really enjoy is the extra time afforded by a few weeks without teaching or any kind of administrative meetings or responsibilities. Don’t get me wrong; these are important and usually interesting and rewarding parts of my job. But from time to time something needs to give to provide a little breathing room, and at this time of year these things just naturally cease for a short while.

So what am I doing with the extra time? Well, my goal is to get myself in the state of mind so that I can really hit the ground running in the New Year, relaxed and rejuvenated and ready to make lots of progress on all the different things I’m involved with. For a start, I genuinely took a few days completely off. By this I mean that, apart from glancing at email a few times a day to make sure there wasn’t anything absolutely essential to deal with, I did nothing at all associated with being a physicist or a Professor for about three days. This is already something that some physicists would see as a lack of commitment, but I insist that it constitutes an investment that will pay off in the quality of work I do and my improved focus when I get back to my usual schedule.

The rest of the time I’ve been getting a few hours a day of real work done – completing work on a couple of drafts of papers; editing a long white paper I’m working on, in preparation for an associated teleconference tomorrow; preparing some information requested by my grant manager at NSF; prepping for the start of classes; and several other things. But I’ve also been doing plenty of things that are just plain fun.

I’ve been spending long, enjoyable evenings with my wife and with friends. I’ve been reading, playing scrabble, cooking, eating, and drinking. On Christmas day I had sausage rolls (cooked by a wonderful friend who is also from the North of England) and some fine champagne. Later, Sara and I went to a lovely dinner with sixteen other people, hosted by two of my good friends who are also colleagues. On Boxing day Sara and I had a fantastic pork dinner (including lots of crackling – look it up if you have to) with the same sausage-roll friends, and yesterday I spent the afternoon cooking great soups out of a cook book I received as a present. Tomorrow I’m hosting a poker game and on Friday evening one of my best friends is arriving from Providence to spend the New Year’s weekend with us. I’ve had tremendous food, some lovely and interesting wine, and lots and lots of great company – a truly enjoyable time.

But I’m not just telling you this because I think you’ll get a kick out of my festivities (although if you do – good for you!). What I really want to get across is that I think it is extremely important for academics to relax and spend some time away from their work on occasion. Before I get going, I should make it clear that I’m not suggesting people do what I do, rather that they spend time doing whatever it is that they love to do that isn’t work. And I’m really only speaking with confidence about what I know best – theoretical physicists – although I suspect something similar would apply equally well to other academic disciplines.

I’ve mentioned before that one thing that struck me when I moved to the US was the diametrically opposite public attitudes taken by academics towards their schedules. While I have no idea who works the most, the style (at least as I remember it) in England is to act as if one does hardly any work, and then to be even more impressive because one manages to be successful with that schedule. On the other hand, in the US it is usual to claim to work as many crazy hours as one can, so as to be sure to be seen as dedicated to the subject. In reality academics on both sides of the pond work extremely hard, but nevertheless, the public faces are starkly different.

In the US, where I have most experience, a phenomenon that is perhaps associated with this is that academics seem to feel great pressure never to take time off work unless, for example, it is associated with a family emergency which, let’s face it, isn’t going to count as relaxing.

From my point of view this is extremely unhealthy, and is an attitude we should do everything we can to dispel in our graduate students and postdocs. These young researchers get their ideas about a healthy schedule from, at least in large part, their mentors. It is our job to provide them with an appropriate lens through which to view the attitudes they encounter in the wider academic community.

We don’t work on an assembly line, so the sheer number of hours spent on physics does not necessarily translate into correspondingly more good physics. I’m certainly not trying to imply that our work isn’t highly enjoyable and rewarding. But our work is, at its heart, creative, and more than anything we need quality time to spend on physics. And by this I partly mean time during which we feel relaxed, well rested and unstressed. Taking time in one’s life to ensure that this is possible is very important and, I think, will help you do better physics.

Certainly there will be people reading this and thinking “That’s easy for you to say – you’ve got a job”, or “That’s all well and good if you’ve got tenure”. But the truth is that I’ve been going on about this since I was a graduate student, and have always given this advice to postdocs and graduate students. I certainly realize the stress that postdocs are under. There are other stresses as a faculty member (untenured and then tenured), and different ones again as a graduate student. However, this is precisely why I think the advice is so important. This stress can be quite unhealthy, and if you don’t occasionally take time away from your crazy schedules, you risk never doing the work that helps you achieve what you want to with your career.

The bottom line is that, in my experience, one will in general be healthier, happier, and more successful if one takes reasonable amounts of time away from work, doing whatever helps you to relax. Don’t let the culture of crazy work schedules and macho bragging about them drive you to unhealthy practices. Find out what works for you and, as long as it isn’t clearly unreasonable, stick with it, and explain that to anyone who tries to persuade you not to.

Happy New Year Everyone!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Personal
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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Slacker.

  • citrine

    Well said, Mark! Ever since I attended my extremely competitive high school (outside the USA) I’ve seen the serious and often life-changing toll the relentless pressure to perform and produce takes on people (and their families). In the USA it’s hard to maintain a balance, as busyness is often equated with business. When the potential rewards of more, more and even more hours put in on your job are dangled before your eyes, it’s hard to say no. I guess as with many decisions, one needs to ask oneself whether the negative cosequences are worth it.

    P.S. Those sausage rolls sound really yummy!!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Agreed citrine. I even think that often the “potential rewards” are a fake, and that the real professional rewards will come with a focus on quality.

  • Indiana Jones

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one that feels this way. I need to move to the UK.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi IJ. I’m not sure it helps (or that things are much different there these days). I think there’s a similar amount of stress associated with thinking that everyone else is doing so well off so little work.

  • Richard

    Taking some time off periodically, even if only for a day or two, is good for your health, helps your mind escape the mental ruts, and lets it drift just enough to return to your work with a fresh viewpoint and clearer perspective. A dog can help as well. They’re always good for a nature walk, perhaps through some woods, where your mind can encounter some beauty and a lot of refreshing randomness. My dog always makes sure that I don’t zone out at the computer for too long without a break. (Warning: dogs are also a lot of work and are addictive.)

  • citrine

    Mmmhhh… I beg to differ, Richard. I don’t mean to sound too “cutesy” here but having a soft furry cat purring against one is extremely therapeutic. Dogs are too rumbunctious, and as you point out, need a lot of care and attention. A cat will silently sit besides you, often on your desk (and yes, lie on your books, jacket or computer keyboard if given the chance) while you do your work. When you want to take a mini-break, you just reach over and pet the cat.

    Now exactly who inspired Schrodinger to come up with a certain thought experiment?

    ??

  • Richard

    Now exactly who inspired Schrodinger to come up with a certain thought experiment?

    Citrine,

    Having once had a cat companion for 22 years, I would say the most likely culprit was someone who peed on someone’s keyboard or bed.

    Richard

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    A useful question to ask oneself is ‘do you live to work?’ or ‘do you work to live?’ The answer will help to prioritize one’s values.

  • Julianne

    I heartily second your opinion, Mark. Since graduate school, I’ve had a pretty deeply ingrained “fuck ’em” attitude, which can be more politely summarized as “success on my own terms”. I was fortunate enough to realize that my reward for working too hard in graduate school would be a postdoc where I also had to work too hard, which would then lead to a faculty job where I’d be expected to work too hard as well — a track that didn’t seem all that appealling. Instead, I consciously decided that I would work just as hard as I wanted to, and if that wasn’t enough, fine, because I would accept whatever the outcome would be. I wound up having a much fuller life than I would have had if I’d blindly forged ahead with the expected 24 hour work day. In the end, I wound up not having to accept any compromises, and am now happily tenured in a first rate research university while raising two kids. By being more relaxed, I’m more creative, and am better able to pick lines of research that will be fruitful, rather than just blindly forging ahead in a panic like I used to do in the early days. I’m not saying that I haven’t been extremely fortunate in many ways or that I’m a slacker, but by being open to accepting a wide range of alternate paths, I probably increased my chances of winding up on the path I preferred.

    As I frequently tell prospective graduate students, you’re not getting any do-overs on the next five years of your life, so you might as well arrange your life so you’ll be happy.

  • tom fish

    Hey! Where did my comment go?! Like it never even existed… Even oases like liberal scientists’ blogs aren’t safe from censorship anymore. I mean, sure, the comment was vaguely rude, but it was relevant–you see, I took a break from my work to post it! This is what I get for taking your advice?

  • janet

    The really sad thing is that what you’re saying is common sense — it’s a symptom of something very wrong that such things even need to be said.

  • Dissident

    Mark, how dare you agree with me? Is this some kind of new, subtle anti-Dissident tactic? 😉

    Happy new relaxed year!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi tom fish. I don’t know. I haven’t deleted any comments on this thread and a previous comment of yours hasn’t been forwarded to me for a decision about its appropriateness. Sorry – don’t know what happened.

    Please try posting again. If it fails again then please email me to let me know and email me the comment and I’ll try to post it for you (Unless it’s entirely inappropriate). Sorry for the inconvenience.

  • robert

    Hailing from England, and being old enough to have secured tenure, you may recall that ‘Frankie says Relax’, and look what happened to him. I’m not aware of any data but cannot help but wonder whether there is a correlation (negative or otherwise) between frantic toil in one’s youth and continued interest and productivity in one’s field of choice in later life?

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    I would add another facet that if one doesn’t learn to have good down time, then the human body will find ways to demonstrate that you need down time. The human body and mind is not built to work insanely (and/or with stress) for sustained periods of time. You can get away with it for a little while when you are young, but eventually it catches up with you. I don’t know how many in the US culture grasp this aspect of good health; my experience from the 38 years I lived there, is that not enough people do.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    Here is my life philosophy, and it is not just about work too!

    First Fig

    My candle burns at both ends;
    It will not last the night;
    But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
    It gives a lovely light!

    Edna St. Vincent Millay

  • http://dftuz.unizar.es/~rivero/research/ Alejandro Rivero

    Nego. A decent research institution should have the posibility to go to the Library and usint seminars rooms 7/7, 24/24. I have enjoyed a lot studying in the floor of a nightly library or discussing papers a saturday night. I agree on relaxing against competitive demostrations, either “sucess or perish” career path or just ego shows.

    But about research, please do not relax. I know a mathematician (Fields medalm btw) who has arranged a shelf layer in the back of his car, so he can travel with a minimum bibliography. Alternatively, you can look for .djvu scans of the books and rely on the ArXiV and an eBook reader. Happy holidays.

  • Dick Thompson

    I recall that the mathematician G.H. Hardy would spend his mornings (4 hours a day) “at work” and his afternoons playing cricket with his friends. Of course as a don he had little purely professorial work to get through. And we know that Poincare had his hiking holidays, which proved so very enhancing.

    Stupid conjecture: Creativity taps our inherited “young batchelor” primate traits (which can of course be inherited by women as well as men) and is enhanced by periodic recurrence to the original state, time with chums, preferably outdoors, and sufficiently absorbing that you don’t continue to fuss over problems in your research.

  • citrine

    Having once had a cat companion for 22 years, I would say the most likely culprit was someone who peed on someone’s keyboard or bed.

    Richard

    *******************************************************

    Well, if you had it for 22 years that’s bound to happen.
    😉

  • http://redbluff.blogspot.com/ chuko

    Richard Fortey said something about this in his book on paleontology – “Life”. His take was that they were equally dubious positions. In the US version, you’re supposed to look busy, even when you aren’t. In the UK, you were supposed to appear to do nothing at all, but just produce because you were such a genius.

  • Richard E.

    I heartily second Mark’s comments here. Especially the ones about crackling.

  • Katherine

    Hey Mark –

    I am a grad student and am definitely guilty of working too hard. How does one share this enlightened point of view with an overexcited advisor who believes that a work day is not successful unless you have worked 16 hours. How do I reclaim my relaxation time?

  • Julianne

    Katherine — My advice is to measure your time by goals rather than hours. What your advisor wants to see is scientific progress. If my students show me a steady stream of interesting, well-thought out plots and demonstrate that they’re thinking about the results, I don’t care if it took them 4 hours a day or 16 hours a day to get there. On the other hand, if they’re spinning their wheels, mostly doing small incremental things without focussing on the science, I don’t care if they spent 20 hours a day — they’re just drifting and I’d much rather they get something solid done. If you don’t feel yourself pushing towards some publishable result, then you might need to alter your style of work, which is not the same as “working harder”.

    But that’s just me. Your advisor might just be a freak!

  • Juan

    Sounds like you are suggesting rearing a generation of, if I may use the British term, wankers.

    There is a reason why the US is and hopefully shall remain the leader in science and technology (among other fronts). In this country we are defined by our jobs, so much more than anywhere else on Earth. Ergomania can be looked at as a virtue or defect of character, and you and I evidently strongly disagree on the point.

    You describe the “crazy hours” as a mere facade. I am convinced that this is not true. The reason being that I was born an eurobranleur myself, having pulled my hair out -professionally speaking- in no less than three European countries, surrounded by masses of bon viveurs. Manhana, manhana, tomorrow.

    Look at it from another angle. The hours you spend on this planet as a diletantte profit you and maybe (not necessarily) your innermost circle. The “crazy hours” spent on science are all for the common good.

    I think you are doing your students an disfavor in trying to pass on this attitude. Unless they can all find jobs in Europe.

  • Juan

    Or, in more tragic words:

    http://www.bartleby.com/250/171.html

    PS: A tatoo of these should be made a requirement for admission to graduate schools in physics. In a perfect world.

    Just being facetious. Maybe not.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Juan, you are crazy (as you know). It’s good that crazy people like you exist, but I don’t want to be one of them. You think I am working hard at science for the common good? I’m here because I love doing research, but I love other things too. It really is possible to be a good scientist and also enjoy your life — I would recommend it without apology.

  • Juan

    OK, I will take my words back. Should not be a tatoo, but instead seared on the buttocks, font size allowing.

    Sean, for xst sake, you got me blogging and enjoying it, gotta stop this madness!

    ALL THE BEST FOR 2006!!!

  • Pingback: El último hovercraft » Campanadas en un VAX()

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Sean, the point is that by suggesting students to relax from the job, you are implying it is a job.

  • citrine

    Juan,

    I don’t see Sean’s or Mark’s comments as suggesting that we party instead of working hard. I think the point of this posting is that we should take a little time off now and then to maintain our sanity and recharge our batteries (neurons?).

  • Nils

    Unfortunately these crazy hour working is not limited to research in the US. Working as a physicist at one of europe’s particle accelerators most of our senior people and some of the more junior people work all days, spending a lot more than 60 hours per week on the job. Most of the time they are working highly unefficient, a lot of time goes away in unneccessary meetings. As most of them limit their social life also to their colleagues, they basically never leave work.

    In my experience this is dangerous. You stay with your ideas, your creativity is very limited. I get my best Ideas, when I am not working or after I spent some time doing something else. Staying within your working environment prevents you from getting a fresh view on your tasks.

    And having tried both, working crazy hours and working with taking time off inbetween, I think I am doing more and better work with the latter.

    Physics is interesting, can be fun, can provide humanity with important knowledge, but there is more to life… (at least I hope;-) )

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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