Pressure or pleasure – what produces better science?

A huge body of scientific evidence shows that happy team members produce better results. However, most PhD students and postdocs are stressed by peer pressure, high demands from their supervisors, potentially insufficient supervision, and a high degree of uncertainty about their future careers. Is it better to make them all happy?

General happiness is not a realistic goal

It is not the goal of the group leader to make everybody happy. 

To positively influence the feelings of the group members is a very demanding task since their emotions change on a daily basis – sometimes even several times during the day. 

Firstly, every group member comes to the workplace with his/her specific psychological constitution and current emotional state (from being freshly in love to being severely ill). 

After hiring, the group members’ constitution and emotional states are mostly out of the control of the group leader and the colleagues. 

In every group, there are always conflicting interests, such as the fair distribution of technician’s time, consumables, infrastructure, instruments, authorships, and direct support, among many others. 

Thus, general happiness is not a realistic goal. Instead, most successful group leaders aim to balance a healthy team spirit and ambitious but realistic output goals. 

To reach this aim, every group leader must carefully define and communicate what he/she defines as “success in science“. It is crucial to communicate these goals clearly to the team.

Unhappy group members are bad for team spirit and productivity

There are good arguments that a supportive environment that gives team members the feeling of being valued is more productive than an environment that devalues employees. 

Devaluated group members may end up as quiet quitters. A quiet quitter is a young scientist who has mentally quit their job but stays to finish the PhD or postdoc period (inner resignation). 

Inner resignation is bad for the group because these group members are not productive – something that will be noticed and acted upon eventually or ignored until the end of the contract. 

Under both circumstances, the young scientist, the peers, and the group leader will be frustrated, and productivity will suffer.

Behaviour patterns of unhappy group members

Typical behaviour patterns of quiet quitters and mentally resigned people are 

  • massive procrastination, including overpreparation of projects (instead of doing them)
  • extensive discussions about potential pitfalls of important activities (analysis paralysis)
  • massive activity in unrelated side-activities which do not contribute to the productivity of the group 
  • emotional instability 

All these behavior patterns easily become chronic and quickly also impair the productivity of the other group members who are dependent on the work of this person. 

Whether this person can be coached or has to be let go is always a difficult decision.

In any case, group leaders must take action and make the quiet quitter aware of their influence on the group, the effect on the specific project, and the overall productivity. 

The psychological dynamics are often pretty stable, and a positive change takes considerable effort. 

The relatively fast turnover of PhD students and postdocs can be advantageous because every new group member can positively influence the group spirit and change unproductive dynamics.

Coaching or letting go?

It can be devastating for the team spirit if one team member hates their job or is a quiet quitter. As mentioned above, inner resignation may result from devaluating group members. In this case, the group leader must reflect on their behaviour and maybe seek supervision.

If a team member does not do the work, has given up or is simply at the wrong place (“I don’t want to work in the lab”), the group leader may not have many options. 

If a team member does not fit into the group and creates a lot of tension, it may be better to let the person go instead of wasting many hours of coaching without effect.

From personal experience, I know that pressure is the one strategy that never works (maybe just for a very short period) because the group members will become defensive or aggressive. 

Similarly, if a team member is ‘cognitively challenged’ by the task and does not show the capacity to learn the necessary skills, the coaching options can be very limited.

In these cases, finding a suitable arrangement and helping this person find a better job elsewhere is better. It is not always easy because letting somebody go hurts the pride of this person, and some people may fight like lions for a job they hate just to protect their pride.

Should you get into a situation where you are not a good fit for the group, do *not* make this mistake. Better, negotiate a suitable arrangement that promotes your career – and find a group where you are a good fit

If you are considering quitting your job in science, prepare the transition carefully.

If you suffer from abuse by a narcissistic supervisor, you must get support.

Conflicts in the research group

Conflicts are unavoidable. In principle, group leaders expect that group members solve their problems with each other without intervention by the PI. 

There are many possibilities for personal conflicts produced by working behaviours such as shouting at the phone in a shared office or problems with personal hygiene. 

These problems can severely damage the team spirit and reduce productivity. The group leader may be obliged to talk to the respective persons to find an acceptable solution for the whole team. 

Professional conflicts are associated with the distribution of resources, performance indicators such as author positions or rewards such as paid travel to scientific meetings in attractive tourist locations. 

In these cases, the group leader is fully responsible for the effects of their attitudes and behaviours on the group. Thus, he/she may consciously or unconsciously create trust or paranoia.

The health of the work environment

A colleague of mine suggested that the “health” of a research group or a department can be easily identified by the way the others perceive the high performance of one member. 

If a high-impact publication produces excitement and honest congratulations, these are symptoms of a healthy environment. If the reaction is characterized by jealousy and devaluating statements (“Such a loser gets a Nature paper”), this is a symptom of a pathologic environment.

Competitiveness and unethical behaviour

Some PIs follow the concept “the blood on the outside of my office door does not interest me”. 

They breed a very competitive environment. They indirectly support unethical behaviour between the group members and destroy trust because the young scientists experience maximal uncertainty

They have to stay maximally cautious to intervene immediately when their rights are violated or questioned. They feel a permanent danger of being deceived. 

Typical reactions are either massive egotism, exaggerated competition, aggression and distrust, condescending and arrogant behaviour or fatalism, depression and low self-esteem. 

If you experience such a work environment, there is a good chance that you have a narcissistic supervisor abusing their staff members.

Exaggerated competitiveness may induce a tunnel view and lead to scientific fraud to cope with it.

Being stressed by peer pressure

The PI consciously or unconsciously creates a specific environment defined by their values, presumptions and behaviours. 

The PI attracts a specific type of job candidate, selects specific new group members and may let others go. 

Therefore, members of research teams often take over the general culture of the research group and start to push the other members in a particular direction, thereby creating strong group dynamics that may be productive or pathologic. 

If the pressure is high, the young scientists feel challenged first and then quickly distressed.

Publish or perish

Publication pressure is very subjective. It can feel like a small annoyance or be life-threatening, depending on the environment

Surprisingly, young researchers are often unaware that an academic career is not the only possibility to make a career in science. About 97% of all PhD holders and more than 90% of postdocs find a job outside academia. Thus, academia is just one of many options.

In order to make a career in science, it is not necessary to have Nature and Science papers – especially when you want to work in the non-academic world. 

There may be a lot of peer pressure or pressure by the family or a spouse but long-term high performance in a job you hate is the perfect road to burn-out.

It is your personal choice to work in a highly competitive environment! 
If you do not like it – get out of it!

If you perceive publication pressure as a small annoyance or even as an exciting challenge, you can easily enjoy academic research. 

It is important to note that those researchers who publish in high-impact journals regularly are outliers – and the majority of scientists are, by definition, “average”. 

This attitude helps a lot to handle the feelings of inferiority many researchers have when confronted with science stars.

Pressure through high demands of supervisors

Supervisors should be ambitious in helping young researchers develop their talents and skills. 

When the supervisor has low ambition, the young researchers will take over this attitude or become severely frustrated. In competitive environments, the high demands of supervisors can substantially impair the well-being and health of young researchers. 

Excessive demands can be particularly devastating when the supervision is insufficient, and the young researcher feels left alone. 

But again, it is your personal choice to stay in such an environment, and it is your personal choice whether you accept any demands of your supervisor – or not. 

Often, it is necessary to clarify your limits, and many supervisors will accept that. 

Otherwise, you might consider quitting your job and leaving to protect your well-being!

Going the extra mile

For young researchers, a clear concept of “healthy ambition” is essential. Healthy ambition is characterized by a passionate investment during good times and considerable self-discipline during bad times. 

Having the habit of always doing 10% more than expected is a critical psychological investment which produces much higher commitment. Spending 70 hours per week at work is not necessarily more productive than spending 40 hours. 

A strong focus on the “best work” can often produce better outcomes and allows the combination of a healthy family life with a successful scientific career.

Rewards and gratifications

There is much debate whether a forced “meritocratic” approach (only the best of the competitive crowd get the prize) or a “socialistic” approach (everybody gets the same) is ideal for producing high productivity. 

The meritocratic approach tends to breed competition and may easily create feelings of being treated unfairly because there are often considerable differences in how a group leader evaluates the performance of a group member and how the peers evaluate this performance. 

The socialistic approach has the disadvantage that the group members quickly take the “prize” for granted and do not perceive it as a gratification for their performance. Thus, the reward loses its effect. Unexpected rewards have the highest impact; expected rewards are often not valued anymore.

There is no “one fits it all” solution; every research group has a different culture, and a mix of the two approaches is necessary. Every week, I have to learn again that it is easy to make mistakes when giving rewards and gratifications. 

Short contracts and low salaries are destructive

It is crucial to understand that economic stability is crucial to be a good scientist.

Poor working and economic conditions for scientists can impair research quality and promote scientific fraud. Underpaid, overworked scientists often face stress and burnout, leading to mistakes. If a scientist’s contract ends soon, uncertainty about future work and poor experimental results may tempt them to manipulate data or cut corners to secure funding.

Short-term contracts and financial pressures undermine ethical behavior. Therefore, fair compensation and stable employment are essential for maintaining high scientific standards and preventing misconduct.

Trust and transparency

Slack’s 2023 survey states that trust is critical for employee productivity and success. Desk workers who feel trusted by their employers demonstrate significantly higher performance levels and report a more positive work experience compared to those who do not feel trusted. Specifically, employees who feel trusted exhibit:

– 2.1 times better focus

– 2 times higher productivity

– 4.3 times greater overall job satisfaction

Additionally, these trusted employees are 1.3 times more likely to put in extra effort at work and are 1.2 times more willing to go above and beyond their basic job requirements compared to those who do not feel trusted (40% vs. 33%).

These are very important findings – but how do you create trust?

I am convinced that transparency and clear rules are among the most important elements in creating trust. 

Young scientists should feel the certainty that there are clear and valid agreements about working conditions, distribution of money and infrastructures, and authorships. 

In cases of conflict, the group leader must be neutral and apply a predictable and known set of rules to avoid paranoia and the feeling of being treated unfairly in the group.

Creating a supportive and stimulating environment

Creating a trustworthy working environment is challenging for most postdocs and young group leaders. Postdocs often need some time to learn a healthy balance between friendly and trustworthy support on the one hand and a professional distance from the PhD students and technicians on the other. 

Many young group leaders still struggle with this challenge. Two typical extremes are either very strict and authoritarian control or a general laissez-faire attitude (letting everything happen to avoid conflicts and unpleasant talks with group members who are less productive or spread negative emotions). 

training in leadership skills can be very beneficial to find a healthy approach which has to be developed over several years.

Pressure or pleasure – what produces better science?

In conclusion, a healthy work environment that gives team members the feeling of being valued is more productive than an environment that devalues employees. 

Ambitious but realistic goals of the group leader are vital to motivate group members and to develop their talents and skills. 

For young researchers a healthy approach may be to perform always 10% better than expected to produce substantially higher commitment and better outcomes. 

Exaggerated demands combined with insufficient supervision provoke burn-out or scientific fraud. Thus, “pleasure” produces better scientists and as a result better science than just massive “pressure”.


I have used AI systems, including Grammarly, Google Gemini, and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!

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  1. Managers who follow the concept “the blood on the outside of my office door does not interest me, don’t read such articles. Moreover, you cannot have a decent conversation with these people. They simply argument that we are not living in a democracy and that life is not fair, or they confirm that you have a point but half an hour later they act as if nothing has been said. A good young scientist should thus look for another job because of a generalized incompetent management at universities? Then nothing will ever change; only the corrupt will stay to become the next incompetent and egocentric group leader. This article is clearly written by a group leader with only experience at academic level. Don’t believe that there is no competition in the private sector; there is, but at least not as aggressive, corrupt and dishonest as in the academic world.

    1. Thanks for this comment. Yes, indeed, I made only experiences at the academic level. I want to underline that I do NOT think that there is a “generalized incompetent management at universities”. The opposite is the case. The majority of group leaders I know do their best to create a productive environment to develop the skills and talents of their people. I have worked in many groups/departments in Germany, USA, UK, Japan, Italy and Belgium. Indeed, some environments were “aggressive and dishonest” and former members are traumatized until today. Fortunately, I have not experienced “corrupt” environments. The aim of this post is NOT to convince “evil” managers who indeed do not read such posts – but, it is of crucial importance to make young researchers aware of the fact that they have a choice to stay or to leave a toxic environment.

  2. Certainly work atmosphere is very important in scientific institutions for work. I feel a good combination of healthy environment, team management and feelings of belonging together are very important. During work scientists get many type of experiences such as experimental failure, frustrations etc. The manager should know how to overcome such things in the laboratory. There shouldn’t be any pressure of work on the researchers but a sense of responsibility and belongingness are more important.

  3. Sven,

    This is a fantastic article because it emphasizes one of the biggest issues that group leaders struggle with: how do I get my team to do what they are supposed to do? I think that taking a general approach (pressure/pleasure) is not very effective because everyone is motivated by different factors. However, I do know that the ultimate reward is internal (job satisfaction, feeling like contribution is important, appreciation) not external (bonus, pay-raise). External rewards can only take you so far, and when you take them away the person will no longer be motivated.
    When I mentored younger scientists in industry I found that the best motivator was to let them know why their work was so important, show them appreciation, and if they made mistakes help them learn from them.

  4. I agree broadly with all that is written here; particularly that happiness, per se, is not the first goal. The first goal is to produce high-quality research and to publish it. I believe that from this ultimate goal arises happiness, via a sense of achievement. Praise is a part of this for good work done. Ineffective management is often, however, seen as being due to the PhD students. I have never heard a PI say “I was wrong”. Only that their students were “not motivated” or not “scientifically minded”. How interesting!

    As for unhappiness, I have seen some horrific examples in my field (neuroscience). I personally have:
    – had two years of my work published uncredited to me.
    – been bullied and had my requests for help ignored (which is illegal)
    – been given nonsensical contracts that do not adhere to university regulations or to employment law in order to dodge tax (highly illegal)
    – been forced to perform animal experiments without anaesthesia (extremely illegal)
    – been told not to speak about any of this or I will lose my job (that’s corruption!)

    In terms of leadership style I have had one Machiavellian dictator PI who made us compete amongst ourselves on the same project, shouted, screamed, insulted, and insinuated. Another who is completely laissez-faire and couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. Neither of these people publish half of what they should in terms of the size of lab and amount of funding they receive. PhDs take on average 7 years here and I am only surprised that nobody has committed suicide. (Except for one guy earlier this year who swallowed cyanide.)

    Having worked outside of science for 6 years and observed several kinds of more and less-functional environments, I can say that whilst in general there is a basic level of intelligence in science that I appreciate, basic managerial skills are often absent. (For starters: the concept of core working hours and keeping minutes in meetings.) Not even the least educated people I have worked with in the private sector could make some of the fundamental errors I have seen.

    From my perspective, the ideal lab should have (and I have seen very good labs that are productive – they function like this):

    – a defined hierarchy. PI, senior and junior PDs, PhDs students, technicians and MSc students. Senior PDs are expected to write grant applications, direct meetings when the boss is away, and to run projects independently so that the boss is not stressed by trying to manage everything. The alternative is chaos and a waste of your time and taxpayers’ money – who are funding you to do research. Not to produce ‘tough scientists’, not for you to pressurise and blame your students, but for you to organise your lab in a functional and efficient manner in order to produce papers.

    – zero tolerance for bullying (goes without saying, but I see it tolerated in some labs. It is a culture of abuse. The fact is, if you are a bully, it doesn’t mean you are a good scientist. It just means you are a bully, and makes it horrible for everyone working there. You get high staff turnover and high sickness and absences due to stress, and ultimately not as much research is done as should be, so it’s self-defeating. Sad.)

    – legal working contracts that adhere to the law of that country and to university regulations. Alternatively, you can be sued and you will end up paying many times over what you would have paid in the first place. (By screwing your student financially for several years below minimum wage, when he aborted his child, lost his wife and house, and you pleaded poverty, but employed new post-docs on full salary and built holiday residences for yourself and your family… … …) Whatever you do, do it legally. Contracts are a base-level requirement.

    – a lab handbook that delineates responsibilities, procedures, where to find things, expertise etc. This is standard in many businesses. Why not in research groups? A research group is not a business! I hear you say? So, you don’t have a budget and limited resources to produce a marketable product (papers)? Good luck with that approach.

    – core working hours (eg. Work starts at 10 at the latest. You should be there at least 10-16 and fulfil 37,5 hours per week minimum, with overtime beyond your contract optional)

    – shared values and culture. You all work together. Make each others’ lives more bearable, not less. Talk. Be polite, be courteous, ask ‘how are you?’. But equally, hold each other accountable. If one is failing, all are failing (to a point).

    – regular group meetings. Preferably Monday morning 10am. this gets everyone into ‘work mode’ and gives you some face time. Don’t have lengthy presentations, just make an agenda and speak about what you will be doing this week. What are the goals? What is the funding situation? How can people help the boss and help each other? Bring your latest figure and speak about what you are doing. Can anyone help you? Make a list of ‘actions’ if things need doing and then assign a person to do it. Check they have done it next week until it is crossed off the list. This is basic; it is used in functional offices. It is not a question of happiness, but of efficiency. From this, comes happiness and cohesion – when people know what is expected and feel valued.

    – run a journal club once per month. Ask people to bring interesting articles they have read. This can be used a brainstorming session. Encourage a high intellectual standard in your lab but giving reading to people and stimulation discussion. This will elevate people out of “who said what about who” mentality that can dominate in some environments when people are not intellectually stimulated (or capable). Ask peoples’ opinions on ideas.

    – teach people how to do techniques. When I first started I had zero lab experience. I was told to read a few papers and then do a practical technique on my own, and was shouted at when it took me a long time to get it running. Strangely, I thought that I would go to a lab and be taught how to do something and then gradually left to do it independently. If not, then some explanation and encouragement would have worked better. As it happens, the people I worked for had a reputation for being ‘tough’. I just thought they were extremely inefficient and stupid. Waste of my time and their money. (Needless to say, I succeeded and discovered a new phenomenon. That they then published without my name on. Academic fraud, folks!)

    In conclusion, the above examples are extreme. A top-rate lab will generally not make all of these mistakes.. For both PIs and PhD students: make wise choices about both whom you employ and for whom you work for.

    For scientists in general: Managing people is as much part of science as is doing science.

    PS I have been in the wrong environment for too long, but the fact is that I have to stay to finish my PhD 🙁 I can’t wait to get the F out of here forever.

    1. I’m wondering – is it really worth it? I had to switch labs in my 4th year of PhD – best decision I ever made. It extended my PhD by another 3 years, but I found an excellent new advisor, published great 1st author papers, and received excellent recommendations. Another question to ask yourself is ‘will this PhD help me attain my career goals’? There is a glut of PhDs and postdocs out there asking themselves ‘what’s next’?

      1. Answer: not really. I do have to finish though and I’m very close, despite having my work stolen. I changed labs already and have had some success. I love the experimental side, but some of the organisational stuff is an absolute nightmare. I have transferable skills in statistics and scientific writing, so I am hoping I can fit into a more conventional setting such as in the pharmaceutical industry. It will take a while to ‘detox’ after some of the things I have been through though, as well as some quite aggressive litigation – that is already underway. Alternatively I could go to a good lab to do a postdoc, but ultimately I am not sure if that is what I really want now. I’ve had enough of scientists, to be honest. They are the only thing that spoils what is otherwise my dream job 🙂

        1. I admire your determination and I’m really glad that you are fighting the injustice – I hope it proves fruitful! Hang in there in the meantime and the other piece of advice I would like to share is, if you have the time, network. This is especially crucial for the pharma industry, that is way oversaturated in the job market now. But with your background in stats, you have a path into a lot of nice ‘alternative’ careers, check those out as well!

  5. Excellent article, thank you! I think another aspect that is frequently overlooked is that the doctoral and postdoctoral training periods are supposed to be steps up the career ladder toward a career goal (as opposed to being the goal). From this perspective, this can be a strong motivating factor – ‘how will the PhD/postdoc in lab X help me with my career goal Y?’ I think group leaders frequently do not realize just how important their support of the students’ and postdocs’ long term goals is, and their help in realizing these goals.

  6. Excellent article, thank you! I think another aspect that is frequently overlooked is that the doctoral and postdoctoral training periods are supposed to be steps up the career ladder toward a career goal (as opposed to being the goal). From this perspective, this can be a strong motivating factor – ‘how will the PhD/postdoc in lab X help me with my career goal Y?’ I think group leaders frequently do not realize just how important their support of the students’ and postdocs’ long term goals is, and their help in realizing these goals.

  7. I have worked in a few labs where the lab heads believed high pressure and competition between the students/lab staff would lead to better results. In the end, it created lots of bullying, unethical behaviors and extremely low morale. In these labs, there were many quit-stayers who left research as soon as they submitted their PhDs or Masters and turnover of staff was high.
    I have also worked in labs where the environment was supportive, every little advance or achievement was recognised, communication was very open and explicit and although there was still the pressure of grant, abstract and paper submissions etc. the staff worked hard and achieved a lot. There was still conflict between staff (scientists can be very competitive) but the morale was high, most students published and won awards during their degrees and people wanted to work there.
    It seems that a student bought up in a high pressured lab thinks only that way works (it worked for me attitude) whereas those who have experienced the alternative are more open to creating a more supportive environment, when they establish their own labs. Some universities/organisations (mainly in the US) offer training programs to prepare scientists to be the human resource manager, the accountant, the time manager etc. An example is the HHMI Making the Right Moves program for early stage career scientists.
    I believe all new investigators/senior postdocs should do training before they are allowed to employ staff and establish research labs as part of their requirement for a job at a university or industry lab.
    I left research after 20 years of suffering under poor supervisors (either bad HR people or bad organisers). Honestly though, I probably would not have been the best supervisor either but knowing what a good supervisor was, I would have tried.

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