How Not to Mentor Your Students

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 10, 2012 11:42 pm

As a vigorous defender of “work-life” balance, I am compelled to weigh in on the recent circulation of a letter sent to the graduate students in a “well regarded astronomy program”. The lengthy (10-point) letter was a summary of the department’s internal review of grad student performance, along with additional information and guidance. Such a review is not an unusual occurrence, nor is there typically any interest in publicizing routine intradepartmental correspondence.

However, what made the letter notable was that put in writing clear confirmation of pretty much every fear that students have about how they’re viewed and what they’re expected to sacrifice for “success”. On one level, it’s perhaps good to have this all out in the open, rather than having a secret set of criteria that students are never told about.  However, the criteria listed are, frankly, kind of nuts.  Kelle Cruz at AstroBetter and Ethan Siegal have gone through some of the highlights, with most of the outrage coming in response to the implication that failure to work 80-100 hours a week (or simply to not want to work 80-100 hours a week) was a sign that scientific research might not be for you.

Putting aside the fact that I’m highly doubtful that most faculty were actually pulling off sustained 80-100 hour work weeks even in their halcyon grad student days (90 hours a week is roughly 13 hours of work a day, every day — i.e., getting in at 9am, leaving at 11pm, every day, assuming 2 half-hour meal breaks — puh-leeeze), and ignoring the many points in the letter that others have addressed with well-deserved ranty vigor, I find myself agog at how far off the mark the letter is simply as a management tool. The letter was clearly intended to be helpful, but never in the history of modern academic life has anyone been goaded into success by a 10 point email.

So, if generic scolding is out, how is a department to deal with the fact that, inevitably, some graduate students will not be as engaged with their research as they might be, some will be engaged but not productive, and some will indeed failing to invest much time in their education? Failing to “put their heart and souls” into research can indeed be a symptom, but the most effective treatment depends on the underlying illness. The key is therefore why an individual student falls in these categories, and naturally, there will be no universal answer. From student to student, the reasons will be radically different, and successful mentoring and training should be focused on helping the student to identify their particular obstacle and figure out the solution. It’s hard, time intensive, and takes tact and perception. It is also fundamentally more nuanced that the original letter’s prescription for success: “Be more like me”.

  • David Nataf

    In this era of Facebook, Twitter, Solitaire, etc. there may be more and more people are spending 80-100 hours a week “working” :-)

  • Pingback: Work-life balance in graduate school « Mostly physics()

  • Yvette

    And people wonder why I left the US for my PhD- no one back home believes my building is closed on Sundays and you can’t go in!

    No really, what struck me about the letter most was essentially the contempt for PhD students as PEOPLE instead of just automatons to crank out research. Its authors more-or-less state that you should be working full time, accept faculty being rude to you with a “thank you sir, may I have another?” even when it isn’t constructive criticism, and if you don’t do all this and fail to get a postdoc that’s because you’re not “the right stuff” and should have worked 100 hour weeks because it’s not at all hard these days to get one (though this is later contradicted when they point out how funding is tighter than ever- which is it?). No mention at all of maybe not wanting to do the postdoc/ research astronomer route either because that makes you a clear failure…

    As I said, complete contempt for the students as individuals, and if the rumors are true about which institution this is I feel very sorry for my friends there.

  • Bee

    It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. I especially enjoyed the sentence saying “that some faculty-student interactions have become too intense.” In my experience in a job that requires creativity, working longer hours doesn’t improve performance. Putting in too many hours per week however is to a big extent a cultural issue, it’s far less a problem in Europe.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Let’s face it, though: 2 people are in the running for a job, one has twice as many refereed-journal publications or whatever the metric is, but also worked 100 hours a week instead of 50. Will the committee convert this to papers per hour? Fat chance.

  • Abhi Rajan

    Hi JD, I thought there was another funny point that kept coming up throughout this motivational letter (btw as a new grad student – it’s inspired me). They kept mentioning how they’ve heard the criticism that the faculty are not participating in department events – coffee’s, journal clubs, colloquia, etc.

    So I guess the message to the students is – do what we did (supposedly) not what you see us do. Or maybe – do it till you get tenure, then you can be lazy ….. :)

  • Pingback: Mental health and the PhD student, etc()

  • Pingback: How many hours per week should a graduate student work? « In the Dark()

  • Peter Morgan

    Time spent on Satire does or doesn’t count towards the 80-100 hours? I guess it does, insofar as it’s important to be able to write an engaging paper when you come to write one. I hope and trust that jjcharfman has or will have as many citations to his astro papers as this seems to be getting, albeit only blog-cites so far [but perhaps Congressional Committee transcripts are indexed?]. May I count this as one of the “several” papers per week that one must read? [Surely the Committee means to say 80-100 papers and several books?] Of course the danger of satire is that it may be taken to be reality, or vice versa.

  • Phillip Helbig

    I’m not sure whether this is a joke. However, there are similar letters online which are apparently not serious. Whether or not it is a joke, the fact that one has to think about it is bad enough.

  • ScottG

    I don’t for a moment believe the “80 to 100 hours” estimate. The PhD’s were estimating their grad school effort from quite a far (temporal) distance.

    And Memory is a fleeting and misleading thing.

    Additionally, who ever admits to working ‘less than’ the required number of hours?

    The memo has listed a good number of ‘expectations’ that should be kept ‘out in the open’, but the BS opening (concerning hours), sullies the entire effort.

    After all, shouldn’t astronomers be concerned with ‘accuracy’ as well as precision?

    addendum:some numbers

    1) 80 hour work week (assume 7 day a week effort; 11.42 hours/day)
    2) 56 hours sleep (8 hours a nite = Dr’s orders!)
    3) 14 hours eating ( 2 hrs/day, include prep time)
    4) 3.5 hours hygiene (anything requiring a bathroom! ~1/2 hr per day*)
    5) 230 hours commute ( 45min*/ day; 5 days only)

    (*as revealed by the all powerful, all knowing ‘da Google’)

    total = – 215.5 hours owed to the universe. One week = 168 hours.

    Unless there is a red shift effect I am not accounting for?

    Please = no washing of cloths, buying of groceries, time on line at Starbucks, time online, cigarette breaks, going to the gym, searching for love, maintaining that love (if found; still no ‘fifty shades…’ pls.), calling your mother, NOT calling your mother (yes, that too takes effort!), walking the dog, looking for the dog (cheep leash), petting the cat(!!!), and ….

    gotta go, cat’s giving me that look.

  • Trevor

    @ScottG — I’m not sure even all-knowing da Google says people commute 45 hours a day on average.

  • ollie

    Well, this is how I see it: IF you are serious about research, you will be putting in after hours time and weekend time (albeit not the exaggerated times listed there).

    IF you want the Ph. D. and want to settle in to a “teaching university”, you won’t be quite as busy. But you had better be prepared to watch your discipline pass you by because you are spending most of your time on committees, teaching 3-4 classes (with 3 preparations), etc.

  • Chris

    Why even bother getting an apartment? Just put a futon in your lab.

  • Sarah

    I think that for me this pushes at the crux of our “current” field (and perhaps broader? although astronomy is a funny little nook) issue. What is graduate school?

    Letters like this presume that graduate school is, in many ways, a hoop to leap (slowly, awkwardly) through to become a faculty member at an R1 institution. The presumption is that this is the dream of all the students there, and all the faculty members are there to make sure their students make the conversion.

    Are any of us really being honest here? Is R1 faculty the “pinnacle”? Should it be? Is it even what your students want?

    It seems like we’re missing two things here –
    1) (which has been batted around a lot) – Programs should be honest with students about the outlook (which this letter sort of fails to address) – Academic obs are hard to get. Postdocs are hard, prize postdocs are harder, and faculty jobs are hardest. The criteria are variable, the hiring committees (read: faculty at R1 institutions) are erratic, and the “prizes” are.. boobies. ;> It is sort of like the Thunderdome. Good entertainment, but only if you’re trapped in a post-apocalyptic desert.

    2) Are students there to forward their faculty members careers, or to be mentored in their own? Obviously the answer is, hopefully, a bit of both – we all engage in a wonderful exercise of intellectual collaboration where the student grows and thrives, and the faculty member mentors them in their growth, and everyone benefits! But unlike, say, childrearing, where there are consequences for not feeding your child, or locking them in the closet… There aren’t really consequences for failing to mentor, or failing to adapt to the needs of your student. And that’s a resource issue. Rearing a graduate student *is* expensive (in time/energy, etc.). Our current system tells faculty that students are a benefit to them in ONE instance – when they publish prolifically. Are we surprised it ends this way? With people who are overcommitted and not so present but who tell themselves in their heads “If I just worked harder it would be ok..” telling their students to work 100 hour weeks?
    In an ideal world, faculty would recognize that each student has their own needs, and their own goals – and their “program” needs to be adapted, if you will, to meet that. If your student doesn’t *want* to go on to an R1 faculty job, their path might be different from yours. And that is ok. It is still your job to help them find it. But the reward system in academia (esp. for faculty members, esp. for YOUNG faculty members) will need to change.

    Maybe we should stop pretending that graduate school (which can take 4-7 years, on a good day) isn’t a HOOP but a job. Maybe we should realize that while we talk to our students about what the expectations are. Maybe we should realize it isn’t *cheating* to set expectations, and have conversations about them, and that people thrive and work hard when they feel supported (rather than oppressed). Maybe students *also* need to stop acting like graduate school (and a postdoc after that, and a faculty spot after that) is their DUE. Even on the crappy days, I remembered it was still pretty awesome that someone was paying me to do something I really enjoyed. But just because I enjoyed it doesn’t mean I didn’t have rights. Departments need to advocate for their students – in the sciences, graduate school is a job. Let’s train our students to be grownups by *treating* them like grownups.

    (PS – context: postdoc, from an R1, to an R1, still having fun)

  • Pingback: States and Graduate School « blueollie()

  • ScottG

    Thanks Trevor,

    for pointing out my incorrect unit error for weekly commute.

    I meant 230 MINUTES commuting , NOT 230 HOURS.

    ( my weekly commute is over 750 minutes; sometimes I confuse how long I’m in car with how long it feels).

    After re-calculating…

    Total = 157.3 hours; week remains 168 hours.

    Now, do I give the ‘found’ 10.7 hours to the Department? Or go to Starbucks?

  • Xittenn

    I see nothing wrong with this statement. I don’t believe it is expected all the time and is something I’ve run into in a variety of places. I often find older workers in factories will dedicate themselves to get something important done and that often involves putting in these kinds of hours. When I was in film school I spent three months sitting in a lab developing a concept for a video game. Simply put, if some graduate school offers me the opportunity to advance I’m going to be all on that dedicating as much time as I can to my success therein. If it’s something you love then it takes no effort and I would assume this to be the point of the statement. Sleep less, c’mon . . . .

  • Scott Aaronson

    I can’t help thinking of the scene from Real Genius:

    Prof. Hathaway: I want to see more of you around the lab.

    Chris (Val Kilmer’s character): Fine. I’ll gain weight.

  • ellipsis

    That letter, beyond the usual stupidities, puts the department and university at liability risk for violating labor laws (in the U.S., the Fair Labor Standards Act, with equivalents in all developed countries — this applies whether the university is public or private, and applies to all paid individuals, whether students or not). A _seriously_ bad idea.

  • Pingback: Those kids today « Ted Bunn’s Blog()

  • Hal

    I knew people who used to claim they worked 80 hours a week and found it ridiculous. Most of them left work before I did! And I wasn’t working 80 hours a week in grad school. 50, sure. More if I had an observing run.

    I’m sure they also walked uphill to grad school both ways in the snow, too.

  • coolstar

    Wow, where to start? First, if this is NOT satire, what’s with the anonymity? These people and their institution need and deserve to be SHAMED. Shaming is a very useful tool for changing behavior and if true, this behavior certainly needs to be changed. (love the comment from ellipsis above, he’s spot on. The EU even has laws concerning working hours for m.d. trainees (interns and residents). ). You think the best and brightest are going to keep applying to this grad school if this becomes widely known? (sure, some masochists will still apply). In this same vein, does anyone seriously think American astronomers are now more productive than their European colleagues? Certainly, in my field, this hasn’t been true for at least two decades…..
    Secondly, at my R1 grad program, not a single faculty member I can think of put in more hours per week than I did, though some probably worked as hard but NONE of us worked 80-100 hrs a week except perhaps during an observing run. Which is of course besides the point, as what clearly matters is productivity, not time in the lab or at the office. Hell, a good number of those faculty, as are faculty everywhere at all classes of institution, were R.O.J. : Retired On the Job.
    And another obvious point, if the student happens to be female, they can then forget about having kids until maybe they’re forty…….once you add in grad school, post-doc, junior (untenured) faculty…..

  • coolstar

    The consensus seems to be that this letter originated at the U. of Arizona, though I haven’t been able to personally confirm that and that it is REAL.

  • Alum of Unnamed Academy

    Xittenn, there’s a difference between the sort of hours you put in when you need to get something important done – proposal deadlines, finishing your thesis or another paper, observing at the telescope – and the sort of hours that someone can sustain week in and week out for years on end. I suspect a lot of the difference in the response to this part of the letter (and let me be clear, I think there are a lot of other parts of the letter that are problematic as well) is whether we’re interpreting the number as “you should be willing to put in this sort of hours on the occasions when it’s needed” or “you should want to put in this sort of hours for your entire time in graduate school”. Very few people could sustain 100-hour weeks (that’s 14 hours a day, 7 days a week) for five years straight and be sane at the end of it, yet that’s what the faculty at Unnamed Academy appear to expect from their students.

  • Dutch Railroader

    The letter is indeed from the U0fA. It also suggests that students read the literature and not be shy about engaging the faculty in scientific discussions.

  • Xittenn

    “7 days a week) for five years straight and be sane at the end of it, yet that’s what the faculty at Unnamed Academy appear to expect from their students.” – Alum of Unnamed Academy

    This was not my personal translation of the letter. To me it looked more like ~60+ most of the time with solid bouts of 80 – 100. I don’t see anything unreasonable about that. I mean if 100hrs 24/7/5 is unrealistic, then the individual is exaggerating, and it is best to put it back into perspective for yourself. People do put forth this kind of effort and it is unimaginable to think that in a competitive environment someone would survive by calling foul. I sat in front of a computer for sixth months and dedicated myself to learning everything I could about programing a virtual research environment, because I enjoy pushing these kinds of limits and I learn best when I focus over long periods. There are people willing, and there are people who have done, to me this was the more poignant point of the letter. The letter addresses concerns, there is no indication of numbers but I imagine those who are charging forward were mostly unconcerned after reading the letter. Suggested reading is usually suggested because of its appropriateness.

  • Julianne Dalcanton

    Dutch Railroader — There was indeed a lot of useful advice in the letter. Still think it wasn’t the appropriate way to deliver that advice, and the other issues in the letter raise enough hackles that the positive parts of the message can’t be received.

  • Charon

    @27 Xittenn. Quote from the letter: “If you informally canvass the faculty… most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school.”

    Period. Not “~60+ most of the time with solid bouts of 80 – 100.”

    You don’t get a “personal translation” of something that clear.

  • Xittenn

    @Charon: It’s the missing quantifiers, if you canvass “all of every” graduate student in _____ at _______ every week of the duration of their graduate studies were spent with no less than 80hrs/week (in my response the figure being stated was bottom line 100hrs/week) for no less than five years in duration. I don’t see this statement being made and your observation is rather short sighted in that it omits references to faculty aiding those find ways to accommodate who weren’t in the same realm of expectation. If their level of demand is such that the majority chooses to be a distinct grouping of individuals, then who are people to judge? There is sufficient market demand for alternative post-secondary education, which includes a more casual approach to graduate school, that finding an alternative is usually not a problem. I would also assume that, individuals admitting themselves to being involved at this academic facility, would have had the foresight to look into the policies of the school in general, and would already be privy to this information beforehand. I’m just not seeing the scandal here . . . .

  • astroboy

    Xittenn, let me guess. You are the person who wrote the letter.

  • Xittenn

    No, I’m a 33 year old second year undergraduate in mathematics @SFU in BC, Canada. I worked for fifteen years in trades working as a millwright and machinist. I plan to do my graduate studies in biophysics. I hope to have a lab that I can spend 70-100hrs per week in for five years. If I do i will die happy 😀

    — nanomotor proteins 4 life, werd —

  • Another Alum of Unnamed Academy

    Xittenn, that sounds wonderful. It sounds like it will make you genuinely happy, and I wish you the best of luck achieving this state of bliss.

    The problem is, not everyone is made happy by the exact same thing. Not everyone has the same goals; and yet many of these different goals are (wackily enough!) served by having a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics. Indeed, even apparently-similar goals of being a tenured professor working on exciting science look very different to different people, and can be achieved by many different routes. Most of those routes do require a certain joy, and a certain engagement, and a certain willingness to put in the hours when require…

    …but nothing kills joy and engagement faster than having someone forcibly shoehorning you into an extremely labor-intensive work mode that takes most of your time and doesn’t fit your particular strengths or goals. Add in that person standing over you, scolding you for not finding this thoroughy unenjoyable experience to be enjoyable, and telling you that you are a failure for being miserable at it, and what you have is a recipe for talented people giving up in droves.

    A frankly alarming fraction of students have either quit or been forced out of the program at Unnamed Academy in recent years. That is a fairly new change; it was not the case a decade ago. I doubt it has added much to the quality of the program, or lent any measurable success to the students who do manage to graduate from it. I suspect the opposite, in fact.

  • Faculty at Now-Named Academy

    You can’t imagine how frustrating it is to read this commentary.

    The email is mostly ridiculous. When it appeared in my inbox (yes, most of the faculty had no role in this and had no idea it was coming), my first thought was Dr. Evil saying “ONE HUNDRED HOURS!!!!!”. I honestly thought that most people would disregard the silly parts of the email as silly, but that clearly didn’t happen. No, (almost) no one in the department expects students to work 100 hour weeks. No, the students of the author of the email don’t work 100 hour weeks. I have no rational explanation as to why that workload was suggested. There are some useful suggestions in the email that got lost behind the comical clusterfail.

    While I find many of the reactions as ghoulish or more so than the email itself (we should be shamed, we’re an illegal sweatshop, we have contempt for our students as people, the condescending concern trolling on Astrobetter, yada, yada), and it’s not much fun to be caught in the crossfire, I am mostly interested in using this event as an opportunity to improve our culture and our interactions with the students.

    I found the last paragraph of Julianne’s post to be helpful in this regard. Does anyone have something constructive to add?

  • Yet Another Alum of Unnamed Academy

    Then you guys have to stand up and say that. You really do. You let Dr. Evil run around with that rope for years—YEARS—because nobody could be bothered to take it away. And now you find yourself hanging by the rope.

    Well, quit complaining and bloody well DO something already. Quit trying to blame the people on the internet who half believe it’s a fake document anyway. You did this all by yourselves, by letting it go on this long.

    Issue a joint statement, sign it with your names. Make sure the APC is well-respresented. Have a plan going forward to remedy the problem. Take some of the advice from the “concern trolls” and implement it. Ask the students what they want and DON’T COMPLAIN IF THEY SOUND LESS THAN 100% POLITE WHEN THEY TELL YOU.

    Do we need to write you an alum letter and sign it with our names? We can do that. Do you want us to do that? Would it help?

  • Phillip Helbig

    Good idea, but, please, leave out “going forward”. Really.

  • alumna_who_graduated_despite_culture

    Knowing that my advisor was an author on this email list was a a-ha moment for me, and explained so much of the experience I had back in graduate school. It wasn’t just about me. There are many more students being mentored by the faculty on this list, and for the sake of the students, there should be a serious discussion about the culture in the department. This is especially true for women students who might leak out of the pipeline a bit too early. Now we know where the leakage comes from. Do you want your students to be absolutely miserable, is that the goal?

  • Faculty at Now-Named Academy

    In response to comment 35), academic departments are not monoliths. It should be clear that not all faculty can be equally culpable for past events in a department or have equal power/opportunity to enact change. For similar reasons, I’m relatively sure no signed join statement will be forthcoming. I think the alumni of the department could have a substantial positive influence if they choose to wield it constructively. I suspect the scale of the public response to this issue has not been fully appreciated by all members of the faculty.

    To respond to comment 37), many of us are sensitive to gender issues and family issues (to be clear, I am not lumping these together — they are distinct). The problems facing women and (separately) people with families in academia have systematic reach well beyond any single department. But in addressing the fall out from this email, there is an opportunity for us to improve the experience of women and (again, distinctly) students with families in our graduate program.

  • Hoping to Graduate Despite Culture

    @Yet Another Alum – THANK YOU for saying what needs to be said. In the storm here at Unnamed Academy, not a single faculty member has admitted publicly that there was a problem with the email or that they disagree with it. Instead, we grad students get, “Well of course we don’t actually expect you to work 100 hours a week” and “There’s some good advice in that email, too.” The first step to improving the department culture is accepting that there IS a problem.

  • Phillip Helbig

    @38: Thanks for making the distinction. Do you want to experience real wrath and perhaps even death threats? Mention the impact a family has had on your academic career AS A MAN. Being written off as an MRA is the least of the problems, and being told to shut up until all the disadvantages to women throughout history have been paid back is also relatively mild. And yes, it is possible for a family to significantly hamper one’s career even if one stays in academia “full time”.

  • Julianne Dalcanton

    I appreciate the members of Unnamed Academy weighing in, and I do feel for you guys (both on the student and the faculty side). It’s never good to find yourself in the center of a swirling malarky-storm, whatever its origins. I can only hope that something constructive comes out of it. Given that indeed departments are not monoliths, I can believe that there are enough people of good will to help repair some of the trust that was lost. (And despite the string-em-up-by-their-toenails reaction, I’m enough of an optimist to bet that even the author of the letter is a person of good will — but obviously one who needs to step back and expand their point of view).

  • Faculty at Another Academy

    I’m trying to write something constructive because I am sympathetic to the plight of my friends on the faculty at Now-Named Academy, a category that may or may not include some of the authors of the original email and the author of comments 34 and 38 here (I don’t know and don’t want to know). I’d say you now have two problems: the department culture, and the external community’s perception of the department culture.

    To tackle the first issue, I think it would be most useful to start by enlisting your alumni, particularly those who are still in the field. They will now have seen how things work at other institutions, and they will be viewed as “successful” and more likely to have their feedback taken seriously by the more hidebound members of your faculty. A one-time visiting committee that includes recent graduates, who will be familiar with the current problems, and old-timers, who will remember how things were once and could be again, seems like a good approach. Certainly listening to your current graduate students is a good idea, too, but you should not burden them with the responsibility of leading the change. Personally, I agree with the sentiments Julianne expresses in the last paragraph of her post- the strategy for motivating and advising students will necessarily be different for each person- but I am not an alum of your institution so I can’t offer much specific feedback.

    To tackle the issue of external perceptions, which at this point seem likely to have a very negative impact on the number and quality of the graduate applications you’ll be getting this year (that should get the attention of your more hidebound colleagues if nothing else does), I think it could be helpful if the faculty put together a revised version of the email as it should have been written, which could then be sent to your current students as well as publicly released. At this point, I don’t see any downside to releasing a more carefully considered statement that reflects a true department consensus. Your identity is known, and even commenters who agree with the nuggets of good advice that are included in the original email (which deserve to be reiterated) think the delivery was screwed up, so admitting an error would just be admitting the obvious. Publicly releasing a signed, revised statement that balances a commitment to high standards with explicit recognition that students are more than their work would be a way of silencing the objectionable “public shaming” faction in the community.

    Good luck.

  • Another Faculty at Another Academy

    In response to comment 34: I understand the expectation that “most people would disregard the silly parts of the email as silly,” but I think this assumption is a bit naive and may actually contribute to the problem. One of the big issues in grad school (and perhaps in academia in general), as I clearly remember from my days in a different program, is the lack of well-defined expectations. Most students are never quite sure whether they’re doing the right things or enough things to be successful, and I suspect that it was student requests for something more well-defined that led to this misguided estimate of work times in the first place. Students are still trying to figure things out, and faculty need to realize this.

    I’d also like to emphasize that maybe the most damaging part of this email is not just the suggestion that one should be working 80-100 hours a week, but that one should *want* to. “If you find yourself thinking about astronomy and wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours, then academic research may in fact be the best career choice for you.” The obvious implication is that if you aren’t consumed by your research to the extent of thinking about it all the time, you don’t actually care enough and should maybe go find something else to do. This is a toxic view that will drive away many talented and hardworking people who could become very successful scientists. I have enough counter-examples to dismiss it as absurd, but not all students do, particularly when it’s sent to them as official department correspondence.

  • sad postdoc

    I have a problem with both the content of this email and the responses to it. I am from another field — and have experiences/contacts in yet more fields, but I see this email as a symptom of much that is bad in academia.

    First, it assumes that students are somewhat less than humans, and clearly not colleagues. This is a bizarre misapprehension under which much faculty members across fields labour: they think that they are doing the research and the students are just tools t that end. In fact, the students and postdocs do research, and the faculty does direction, marketing and sales — important roles, no doubt, but no more vital than doing the actual research. Doing research requires not so much hard work as time to think. Give students more time to better design experiments and think about results, and the quality of your output will increase tremendously.

    Second, people not authors of this email defend themselves by saying “I did not write it”. True, but as human beings, you are responsible for speaking out when one of your colleagues has gone off their rocker and is abusive. By finding excuses, you are basically saying to you own students “if _I_ go postal, don’t count on external help”. How this is helping, I don’t know.

    Third, although the email says that it is all about “productivity”, all the specifics are about busywork and giving the impression that you are working extra hard rather than actually doing good research.

    Fourth, it is truly insulting the intelligence of your students to think that not every single one of them thought “bullshit” when hearing the hours stated. Essentially, you are saying that not one of your scientist-in-training can count. Not a good image to give of your department. Also from the outrageous numbers, I would guess that the author is past their prime since way too long: the farther we go in the past, the harder one worked…

  • student in a different astro dept.

    #43, well said!

  • I.P. Freeley

    Yes, the real victims in this episode are the faculty members. Won’t someone please think of the faculty members? Do you need me to call a wahmbulance for you?

    So no, I don’t have anything constructive to add. You blew off your grad students when they identified problems, and then you called the astrobetter folks concern trolls, so I’m not sure why anyone would bother to try and keep giving you advice. Unnamed Academy seems to be where good advice goes to die. I think my time is better spent simply advising my undergrads to apply elsewhere for grad school. They’re the ones who know how to use good advice.

  • stephen eales

    The thing that I do find rather sad is that none of the other faculty sent an e-mail publicly disagreeing with this ludicrous e-mail. One of the good things about life in a university department should be vigorous discussion and disagreement. In my department, it doesn’t take much to start a public e-mail discussion based on Prof. X’s ridiculous claim that the Sun is likely to rise in the east tomorrow morning. All good fun and important for generating an academic culture in which nobody’s views are sacred.

  • Pingback: Punch-Clock Astronomy | astrobites()

  • Tony

    I suspect when one achieves his or her PHD his or her time spent on their chosen field falls to a mere fraction.

  • Doug

    Great news. I’m a mediocre C student desperate for finding PhD school. I will work 100 hrs/week for little pay. Good thing competition will be low this year!

  • Kevin

    In comment #4, Bee said:

    In my experience in a job that requires creativity, working longer hours doesn’t improve performance.

    This is actually a very thoroughly studied scientific fact, but it’s one that everyone consistently forgets. Here’s a very thorough recent article on it from AlterNet. For example:

    In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight.

  • giganotosaurus

    In my sub-discipline, there are students and post-docs that work a “mere” 45 hrs/week, and do great research, and go on to great careers. They get it: that productivity matters. Hence, they work efficiently, smartly, and are totally into it. They also have lives, vacations, hobbies, etc. Some even have families (!). And they’re not burned out afterwards.

    But, sadly, there are times when crazy hours are simply a must, e.g. when off-site experiment time requires it, or data is needed for competitive grant proposals that fund the very students/post-docs in question, or one is at risk of being scooped. Those that “get it” know they must ramp up their hours accordingly, and that this ramp-up is temporary.

    What can be maddening, of course, are those that just don’t get it. Perhaps the letter-writer was responding to these people: students/post-docs that are not productive, and, moreover, are nowhere to be seen at critical moments mentioned above. Instead, they strangely assume the PI will just take care of it — and so the PI does, by working crazy hours, since s/he has no other choice (gotta get those papers, gotta get that grant to fund the students and post-docs, etc.). How does one convince such people that they’re acting against their own interests?

    Clearly, the answer is NOT to send out a 10-point letter dissing everyone. Rather, people have to be approached individually. But if their behavior doesn’t change, even after repeated explanations, I see no harm in telling them to seriously reconsider an academic career (if that’s what they wanted), especially given the increasingly hyper-competitive nature of research, caused, in part, by dwindling funds.

    Thus, the charitable interpretation of this letter is that it was exaggerating to make a point. But if so , it clearly back-fired, since it clearly just pissed off everyone.

  • Eugene

    Hey Julianne+Sean+CV, can we have a “Unsolicited Advice” column on how to mentor students? I am serious, I understand there are different styles and personalities, but it would be nice to have some views from CV-ers.

  • Pingback: Links 10/15/12 | Mike the Mad Biologist()

  • chris

    Well it must be 80-100 hours per week, preferably on a super tight and competitive project. that is the only way to make sure that the students don’t follow their own ideas but that of their professors :-)

  • responder

    Speaking as a scientist in a field with similar expectations, the idea that these people aren’t producing good work…is irrelevant. Peer review is largely a joke, and very few people will actually check up on the facts reported in publications. They might take offense if you don’t cite them or if you don’t say that you followed the methods that they liked, but they’ll almost never check the facts. So no, they don’t care that this reduces work quality. Modern science is about getting grants, producing high-profile publications, and producing a large number of publications. It’s not about quality.

  • Rob Knop

    Does anyone have something constructive to add?

    You need to own it. The fact is that this message did come out of your department, and you cannot deny it. Right now, some of what you say makes it sound like you’re trying to weasel out of responsibility for it. I understand that it’s not your fault, that the department isn’t a monolith, etc. But, you’ve heard from your students and alums; nobody in the department is actively saying that there was a problem with the letter, and the culture is there.

    You’re going to have to admit that the letter came out of your department, and that it didn’t come from nowhere. If you want the silly parts to be viewed as silly, you’re going to have to publicly state that you think there was something wrong with what was in the letter. You’re going to need to have a heart-to-heart with the grad students, admit that there’s a problem, and NOT try to claim that the problem is them failing to “disregard the silly parts”. If the silly parts are there, the question should be, WHY where they there? Or, more importantly, are you going to admit that they were there, and figure out how you’re going to deal with it, and make sure that things really change?

    Even if the letter had silly parts, denial that there was something behind the silly parts is just going to propagate the problem.

  • Dr. Anonymous

    What’s the big deal? In our graduate program, students do 100+ hours of work a week by Wednesday afternoon.

  • Gary

    Julianne Dalcanton: “As a vigorous defender of “work-life” balance…”

    Are you an Apple product owner, by “chance”?

    Just sayin’.

  • Phillip Helbig
  • Still Another Alum of Unnamed Academy

    When I was a prospective student at Unnamed Academy, many faculty were very proud of the department culture and how family friendly it was. They bragged about the number of grad students (many women) who had children while in grad school there. They talked about parties where faculty, staff, postdocs, and students all came. They bragged about the grad play.

    I haven’t heard them bragging about these things in many years. It makes me sad.

    Also, were there really no women hired in the last 10-12 faculty job searches?

  • OMF

    This letter is a symptom of institutional incompetence.

    1) If someone is not able to do their job in a standard ~40 hour week, then they are not able to do their job.
    2) If someone has been given a job which requires 80 hours a week to perform, then their manager is unable to do their job.
    3) If anyone is actually consistently spending 80+ hours a week at their job then a) they are not getting as much work done as someone working 40 hours and b) they should be fired and replaced by someone more competent.

    Long working hours are not an indicator of diligence, dedication, competence, or indeed work itself. They are an indicator of incompetence, poor time management, unprofessionalism, desperation, and inevitably sloppy work.

    # If a job cannot be done in 40 hours a week then it needs more labour.
    # If you need more than 40 hours a week to do your job then you’re in the wrong one.

  • Phillip Helbig

    @62: I think you are missing the point. Most of these people don’t have “jobs”. They are doctoral students, or postdocs, and have some paid job (which might be related to the work they are interested in and/or doing for their degree, but which also might not be), some fellowship or maybe no official funding at all (but perhaps a rich spouse). These people are in competition for permanent academic jobs. Even allowing for the fact that not everyone wants to stay in academia, there are probably 10 times as many applicants as jobs. Assume for the moment that the best people get the jobs. Whatever metric is used, it is certainly possible to increase one’s rating on the corresponding scale by working 80 rather than 40 hours per week for a few years. It might not be sustainable, maybe the Really Important Stuff won’t come out of it, but that’s not the point: the point is to get that job. Maybe the very few geniuses will be at the top of the list even if they work just 40 hours. For the rest, it doesn’t matter what they think: it’s enough if a small fraction work the extra hours, since they will get the jobs. Do some faculty abuse this? Yes, but the reason people work so much is because they want a permanent job.

    The only way to fix this is for a hiring committee to take whatever metric it uses and divide it by the number of hours worked, assuming productivity per 40-hour-work-week (which perhaps they should care about if they are hiring someone for a permanent job who might work less in the future) and not total productivity is what is important. But this will not happen, for a variety of reasons.

    Are there solutions? Yes, but I don’t see them happening with the current funding scheme.

  • OMF

    Most of these people don’t have “jobs”. They are doctoral students, or postdocs, and have some paid job (which might be related to the work they are interested in and/or doing for their degree, but which also might not be), some fellowship or maybe no official funding at all (but perhaps a rich spouse). These people are in competition for permanent academic jobs.


    A job is a job, in and of itself. These people are being employed (usually out of the public purse) to perform service and produce specific work. That they may be doing so with a career path in mind is entirely irrelevant. If someone is paid to do a job then their employer is entitled is a standard working week and not a minute more, and the public is entitled to the higher quality work from that reasonable week.

    I stress again: Working 80 hours weeks is a sign of incompetence. Its a sign of someone making up for shortcomings by appearing to be busy. If the public is paying for this as a matter of routine, then I personally think that funding to these kinds of workshops should be cut entirely. As it stands, we are subsidizing substandard people sitting at their desks for 80 hours doing precious feck all, then rewarding them with tenure afterwards. Money well spent?

  • Phillip Helbig

    I agree with your sentiment, but in order to effect what you want, the entire system will have to be overhauled. A good idea, but it won’t work in practice.

    Note, however, that many fellowships are not “jobs”, in several legal aspects.

  • OMF

    Note, however, that many fellowships are not “jobs”, in several legal aspects.

    If so, then the fundamental difficulty here is not cultural, but instead is a labour relations problem.

    If people can’t work reasonable hours for reasonable pay, then the work suffers, and ultimately so does society.

  • Yet Another Alum of Unnamed Academy

    Phil, it’s not true though. I know plenty of people who have gotten the jobs by just working 40 hours, without being brilliant. Occasionally without being especially efficient. But they were good at other things: networking and creating successful collaborations; grant writing; identifying research areas that are in demand for one reason or another.

    In fact, I would say that any one of those three things is more important—MUCH MORE IMPORTANT— than hours worked. And frankly, the first and third are primarily helpful in that they aid the second. In this money-strapped economy, bringing funding to your university is often a surer route to a tenured position than bringing prestige via publication. True, funding is ideally tied together with Publishing Important Science… but if you have to pick one, and you are not a theorist, the former is the safer bet.

  • Phillip Helbig

    Well, let’s put it this way: I also know a few people who got jobs by working just 40 hours, without being brilliant nor efficient. But they were good at other things. 😐 I would venture to say that they got the jobs for non-scientific reasons. :-( I assume that is not what you are talking about. If so, then good for you and good for them.

    But, let’s be honest: If someone asks you what he should do to increase his odds of getting a permanent job, then “work 80–100 hours per week” is probably good advice. Yes, he might be a genius and can do in 40 what other good people can do in 80. As long as not too many geniuses are working 80 hours per week, then his chances are probably OK. But if he is not a genius, then he is competing mostly with similar people, some of whom are working 80–100 hours per week. True, for many people working more does not mean producing more and/or better work, but for some it does, and these are the people who get the jobs.

    I don’t like this system either, but it’s not even clear how it could be changed, much less that it will be changed.

    Compare this to non-academic jobs: If you can do the job, you can get the job. Of course only within the required working hours. One is getting hired to work for the company in the future, not as a reward for past accomplishments. It should be like this in academia as well, and past accomplishments should be used only as a proxy for future performance (in which case they should be suitably weighted but, as mentioned above, they aren’t), but they have become important in their own right. (The absurdity of this is shown by those people who, for whatever reason, get a good job early on, then get the next good job as a result of having the previous good job, etc etc until they get a permanent job, even though at most only during the first job were they above average in output. Most people will say “Hubble Fellow? Put him on the short list”, in other words demand less of him than from an otherwise similar candidate, but in fact one shjould demand more, since such a prestigious position offers a better environment.)

  • Mike

    Imagine if Einstein had seen this…

  • Pingback: is a Ph.D. worth it? | Antipodal Points()

  • HD

    Wow. It makes me really glad in hindsight that I didn’t take the postdoc at the now-named university, though I had already surmised that from previous conversations with alumni of that institution.

    I think the main reason I got an offer from the now-named university was because the professor called me in my office at 10 PM on a Friday night and I was there working. The professor was quite pleased by that. Of course he didn’t know that I had played hooky in the sunshine all afternoon and was making up time.

    Other institutions, long past the grad school years, are not immune to the same type of people, with exactly the same mentality. While no longer in academe, but still in research, I have heard the same expectations from (some) supervisors. Never in writing of course, because that would be actionable. But made quite clear my career would suffer if I didn’t work nights and weekends. Not “implied” either. In so many words.

    Whether for better or worse, with the current funding profile for science, I doubt it makes any difference either way, so I intend to keep not working on weekends, performing my job with excellence on weekdays, and taking my chances with living a well-rounded life, in which I enjoy both the research and the hobbies. So far, so good.

  • Brian Too

    This is a symptom of an oversubscribed field with no regulatory controls to compensate.

    There is a problem with @34. Faculty at Now-Named Academy’s approach. If I may be so bold, it is rather like that of the Muslim world at the moment: Others are speaking for you! If you will not speak up to normalize extremist views, then you will be tarred with the extremist message.

    It does not matter that you say “the academic world is not a monolith.” It does not matter that you “honestly thought that most people would disregard the silly parts…”

    The students look to you (faculty) to provide leadership. When something like this comes out it looks official. Then no one is willing to publicly contradict it. What is the message here? That this is official policy.

    If I were a student, I’d shut up, put my head down and try to work 100 hour weeks. I’d resent it and I’d resent you for not doing something about it. But short of giving up on the academic dream, that’s mostly my only option. Speaking up in an atmosphere of silence, from a position of little or no power? How is that realistic? You’re trying to attract smart people and they will figure out in a millisecond that the system does not care about the students.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar