Four myths about scientists that let you work too much - title

Four myths about scientists that let you work too much!

For many researchers, science is a passion and, for some, even a calling. However, the status of sciences as “something you do for passion” is often abused by supervisors and institutions to justify bad working conditions. Unveil some myths about ‘science as a job you should do for free’ – you may take them for granted without knowing it.

Science as a passion or a calling

Many young scientists are highly self-motivated and work long hours to create a scientific oeuvre, not only to earn money later or make an impressive career. 

Many young researchers are driven by the strong wish to understand the world (or at least a part of it) and contribute substantially to science and society in general.

However, the enthusiasm of young scientists is abused by supervisors who are often unaware of doing so. Unconscious presumptions may let scientists accept poor working conditions.

Supervisors unconsciously set standards

Cocktail representing being always on duty as a scientist

Older supervisors (40-65) are now exposed to a new generation of younger researchers with quite different ideas about performance and commitment. 

They are surprised that these younger researchers do not take it for granted that they have to work 16 hours per day and be available 24/7 to answer immediately to the new fantastic ideas of their supervisor – even at 3 am in the morning.

Continuous creativity as a supervisor is no problem anymore because I can google or Pubmed a few ideas when the conversations get dry in my favorite cocktail bar,  save a few websites on my phone, arrange a new meeting by email, and send my fantastic ideas to the corresponding postdoc at 3 am. 

In other words, I am continuously on duty and take the office with me. 

I even had to develop a few strategies to stop me from working when I was together with my kids

I also set standards for my group members when I work at night or on weekends. Although I explicitly tell them that I do NOT expect them to work every night and weekend, it creates a certain pressure when the supervisor works during these periods. 

My work ethic is visible in everything I do. 

When I am lazy, my staff starts to get lazy, too. 

When I am frustrated, my staff gets frustrated, too. 

When I am ambitious until I faint, my staff will do the same. 

The majority will follow these unspoken rules and will accept the values behind this behavior.

Myths and unspoken rules

Several presumptions are taken for granted by many scientists, although they create poor working conditions and kill the passion of young researchers. 

The following four myths should lose their power by discussing and deconstructing them.

Myth no. 1: Researchers should be glad to be allowed to do research!

One of the biggest unspoken rules is that scientists should not complain (about anything – especially not their working conditions) because they are privileged. 

They use taxpayers’ money to pursue their passion

They do a great job that is intellectually challenging and may even contribute to the greater good in the world. There is some truth in this statement. 

Being a scientist can be very satisfying. In a productive group that gets enough grant money, there is a lot of space and time to follow up on crazy ideas that do not primarily aim to have a high impact on science and society. 

In my personal experience, many exciting studies were suggested by PhD students or postdocs who got permission (that means free time and money) to do some pilot experiments outside their primary project. 

This is great and opens the door for a lot of creativity.

The concept of sacrificing your life for your job is not a specific problem in science. My friends, who are lawyers, doctors, consultants, or creative directors describe very similar work ethics in their environments. 

However, there is a significant difference. 

Lawyers and consultants are considered to be motivated by their large salary and not by the pleasure and satisfaction of their job. 

Medical doctors are considered to accept poor working conditions because they are morally obliged to work for their patients, and ‘helping people gives them a deep sense of satisfaction.’ 

Scientists are considered to have such a strong intrinsic motivation and to get so much satisfaction from their work that they should – in principle – work for free.

You do not have to accept this presumption! There is no reason to accept that having a great job should stop you from reflecting on your working conditions.

Myth no. 2: You never work enough!

You never work enough in science

During my internship, I worked in a psychosomatic department. I worked many long hours and weekends. I wrote many medical reports at night to get my work done. One day, I left the hospital completely exhausted after a terrible day that had started at 6:30 in the morning. 

At 8 pm, I met the chief in the elevator, and with an innocent smile on his face, he said: ‘Are you already leaving?‘ And he got me. I felt guilty for leaving so early! After 13.5 hours of hard work, I felt guilty to leave too early…

Fortunately, this was so exaggerated that my emotions quickly turned into anger. Since then, I have been very aware of subtle manipulations that create guilt.

Interestingly, many research departments are driven by guilt. Without any awareness, the supervisors and the young researchers just accept the subtle feeling that they never work enough. It is a very subtle but effective emotional tool to push young researchers to work more.

Needless to say, you can sleep 4 hours and work the rest of the day. The work will never be done. There is always too much work. Thus, without reflection, you will work too much.

With every success, the expectations and goals get bigger. Getting a Nature paper accepted means that you did not get a Cell paper. Getting a Cell paper makes you a one-hit-wonder if you do not publish another next year… etc. 

The general hunt for ‘better, bigger, and faster results’ is particularly pronounced in life sciences and technology. Publishing a paper with 50 new factors relevant to your favorite medical condition is great. 

All other groups will try to publish the same number or probably more. To get published higher, you will invest in better technology and produce more and better data in half the time. 

A double knockout cell line or mouse is good; a triple knockout is better! 

“Transgenic mice with three different cell types labeled with a different fluorescent protein – great! But can’t we make a quadruple transgenic mouse?” 

You get the point.

The feeling ‘that you are never working enough’ can easily result in burnout because it is impossible to work enough. If you work too much, you might be under the infuence of a narcissitic supervisor who manipulates you.

You do not have to accept this presumption! It is a sign of mental and emotional hygiene of a research group when the endpoints and outcomes for a specific project are clearly defined for a certain period. 

Outcomes and duration must be communicated by the supervisor and critically discussed by the group members.

Myth no. 3: A good researcher works day and night in the lab!

Moon representing working day and night in the lab

How many hours do scientists work a day?

There is no good answer to this question. There are scientists who get their work done in 5 hours of highly intensive work, while others stay 16 hours in the lab. Thus, it is a misleading question because the hours spent at your workplace can be filled with massive action or with unproductive actions, gossip, and social media scrolling.

Does working 70 hours per week make me more successful?

In principle, nearly everybody knows that working 70 hours per week is not necessarily more productive than 40 hours. It depends on priorities and efficiency. 

Parkinson’s law claims that you will fill any given time with your project. Give yourself 1 hour or 5 hours for the project. In both cases, you will probably finish at the last moment. 

A good example is the well-investigated phenomenon that jobless people tend to fill their entire day with activities such as buying food or going to the post office. In contrast, a working parent must complete the same activity within less than 30 minutes.

Thus, spending a lot of time in the lab is not identical to getting many good things done. If you work too much, you will be less productive and less efficient.

Consequently, the concept of ‘ideally spending 24 hours in the lab’ should be eliminated entirely from scientific work ethics. 

The quality of the well-defined output should be measured and valued – and not the time spent in the working environment.

Myth no. 4: Your private life is your own problem!

Work-life balance in science

It is a well-known fact that the careers of female researchers may suffer from having one or more kids. A general view seems to be that women have to pay the price for having a family. 

Group leaders usually accept pregnancies and child-care duties and dare not mention that the group’s productivity will suffer. They hide their pain more or less and leave the female researchers feeling they do not show enough ambition (= do not work enough)

From personal experience, I know that staff members with children usually are better organized and more time-efficient – because they have to. They simply have to do their work during working hours and leave in time to get the kids from kindergarten/school.

The modern generation of young fathers is willing to contribute substantially to the pleasures and duties of family life. Nevertheless, working part-time in academia or industry is still often considered a sign of low ambition and insufficient commitment for a man. 

Even in institutions with a strong gender awareness, it can still happen that older colleagues suggest to younger staff members that they should not take their paternity leave to avoid damaging their careers. 

The unspoken concept behind these behaviors is that you must sacrifice your private life for the job.

You do not have to accept this. The younger generation of scientists has understood that a successful career in science can be combined with a healthy family life. 

Final reflections

The productivity of many research groups may substantially increase when these four myths are well-reflected.

Reflecting on myth No. 1: There is no reason to accept that having a great job in science should stop you from thinking about improving the working conditions.

Reflecting on myth No. 2: It is impossible to work enough! Define carefully how much time and energy you want to invest and which specific goals you want to reach with this investment.

Reflecting on myth No. 3: Do not spend day and night in the workplace! Define clearly the outcome of your work and the time you want to invest. Then, work only during this period most effectively and efficiently.

Reflecting on myth No. 4: Do not sacrifice your private life for your job. Develop your personal strategies to find a healthy balance between your scientific career and private life.

Acknowledgments

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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13 Comments

  1. Very nice article. Helps to find a balance, keep priorities in perspective. Much of this can apply to even other careers and areas of research. I am thinking about going back to university to embark on a social science research degree to complement my intellectual and ideological goals and I can see all this applying in that area as well. Thanks Dr. Sven.

  2. Very good points. I feel a scientist has to learn to keep the balance in her, or his, life by trial and error. A supervisor may help a young scientist, but, unfortunately, it does indeed not happen often.

    1. Thanks a lot for your comment. I fully agree. We are now thinking about developing efficient training modules for supervisors to train them in leadership including a healthy view on work/life balance. But the big problem are the costs because leadership courses cost us (as a university) at least a few thousand EUROs or dollars for a handfull of postdocs. This is difficult to organize (many experienced trainers are needed) and even more difficult to fund if you have many hundreds or even thousands of potential participants.

  3. Hello Sven,

    Thank you for writing this very important piece regarding work/life balance. Researchers often burn out much too soon–at all levels. I am constantly amazed at the lack of care that students, staff, and faculty at my university (and others) exhibit.

    Hopefully, with great advice from yourself and others in the community, this terrible habit can change and result in a more healthy and well balanced research community. Progress is important, although, healthy living certainly factors prominently in the equation of progress. Again, thank you for the piece. Keep up the wonderful work.

    Sincerely,

    Mike

  4. interesting piece -would love to see data on “the well known fact” that the careers of females that have kids suffer. Come to think of it most data I have seen actually show that women (and men) with kids are generally more successful in science than those without ..

    1. Hmmm, maybe it was not clear what I intended to say. Indeed, I am convinced that parents (mothers and fathers) who *stay* in their field are often better organized and make better careers because they can not afford to waste time. Nowadays, thanks to increasing gender awareness women who do *stay in the field* are as successful as men at achieving tenure-track positions, publishing their work and earning grants although the new gender rules may even have counter-productive effects (see: https://smartsciencecareer.com/strategies-to-block-female-scientists-with-gender-policy/). Instead, most women who opt out do it because they’re having (or planning to have) babies. There are indeed good data to support this view, see this article: http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/07/for-female-scientists-theres-no-good-time-to-have-children/278165/. “The married mothers of young children–that is, children too young to attend school–are 35 percent less likely to get tenure-track jobs compared with married fathers of young children. The same women are 33 percent less likely to get jobs compared with unmarried women who aren’t the parents of young children. However, unmarried childless women are four percent more likely to get tenure-track jobs than are unmarried childless men. At this professional turning point, family formation probably explains why female scientists don’t get tenure-track jobs.”
      However, I still have to check the original studies to get an idea about the quality of these data.

  5. At 82 years of age and retired from my biomedical career, let me reflect.

    My avocation was music, playing double bass in jazz bands, and it paid for my expenses in schools and during postdoctoral training, which did not come close to providing a living wage in those good, old days.

    My research career was short but successful; I achieved professorial rank (with tenure) and then became a vice president for academic affairs. But all during this time, I played music professionally in free time until diabetic nerve damage took my hands, As the head of a research team, I made time not only for myself but for those who worked with me, regardless of their pastime interests.

    Eventually, I succumbed to major depressive disorder that sapped my creativity, and I left research for administration. But during that very active period, I turned out excellent men and women, one of whom became deans, three department chairs, and a number of professors. Yet another departmental chair spurned deanship to be executive vice president for research at one of our five largest pharmaceutical companies.

    So, my experiences and those of my coworkers support the good doctor’s thesis – it is possible to have a life outside the laboratory while being creative and productive in it.

    Frank Nash

    1. Thanks a lot for this inspiring comment. I just wonder whether “leaving to administration” was the best cure for depression?

  6. Thank you for this article! I am just finishing my PhD, published a paper in Science and had a baby boy half way through! It is absolutely possible to do it, and if I did not have to fight my way, I could have done it more easily. Once you are put into the ‘not committed enough, not working hard enough’ group, there is no way out, I still ‘belong’ to this group despite proving myself with the paper. It is incredibly UNFAIR and I am not saying that I wanted someone to care, there’s no way that anyone would care about a PhD student in academia, I am just a ‘good pair of hands’ but it would have been nice to at least not get the sneaky comments when leaving early, or feeling judged for taking 10 min to express milk for my son. It is NOT OK to treat anyone like this. It is NOT OK that my draft manuscript was the last one in the ‘to do’ pile just because I was ‘not working hard enough’. It is NOT OK that once the paper went out for revision, my project became the ‘great story’ that I just happened to ‘stumble across’. It is NOT OK that I don’t get invited anywhere to present it, and that my PI is now busy trying to understand the message so he can pretend it’s all his ideas, work and pride. And it is ABSOLUTELY NOT OK that in my new Postdoc position I will be paid what technicians get because I don’t get the PhD awarded until my examiners return from their skiing trips and I finally get to defend my thesis. No wonder why great talents leave academia – it is virtually impossible for someone who has ambition to take all of these on the chin and stay positive and motivated.

  7. Dear Sven,
    Thank you for writing this article. It is great to know that there are group leaders out there who are real people and care about their team. All four myths resonate in my ears… Let me share my story with you:
    I was put in the ‘not committed enough, not working hard enough’ group when I had my baby boy right in the middle of my PhD. If I got no attention as a result of this, that would not have mattered, but what I got instead were sneaky comments on leaving early, and the feeling that I am constantly judged ‘lazy’ when I take 10 min to express milk for my baby… Going through these, I still managed to publish a paper in Science. Things have not changed one bit, only now I am also considered lucky for having such a great project, apparently it all just fell on my lap. Well, here is my opinion:
    It is NOT OK to even imply that my attitude is not good enough, because I have to leave early and would not stay over night or work weekends (I did this before the baby, will never do it again). As long as I do my work and produce high quality data, then ask the right questions to move forward, I am doing my job quite well.
    It is NOT OK to be given constant negative feedback, then change over night when the paper goes out for review in Science – it was the same work that was not of any importance just the day before!
    It is NOT OK that I am not invited to present my own work anywhere and to have to wait for potential breadcrumbs so maybe one day I get to talk about my work and get comments first-hand. Why are not first-authors invited to talk about the new studies? It is clear to everyone that they did the physical work! Why is it normal to not to be acknowledged for this work?
    It is NOT OK that having had a baby is ‘my problem’ and instead of my PhD being an example, that is IS OK to have a life, a family and do a PhD at the same time, it became my stigma; my time commitment will never be enough to grant me the appreciation of the senior researchers – I will never have the ‘right attitude’.
    It is NOT OK that I will get a technician’s salary for the first few months of my Post-doc, because I have to wait for my examiners to return from their skiing trip so I get to finally defend my thesis and get my PhD awarded.

    No wonder why most of the young and ambitious people, the ones who really can do brilliant science are leaving academia. Nobody in their right mind would be willing to take all of these on their chin, no matter how much they love science.

    I am a PhD student and a mother. I have just published a paper in a high impact journal, I did most of the experiments, pushed the project, wrote the manuscript, fought my way through the tight revision deadline and… I nailed this! This is my life and I am proud of it. I achieved something and learned to not to listen to these voices, but cannot fight the system itself, which holds no reward for real achievement. I can only hope that more people will come forward and start appreciating the post-docs and students, the ones, who do the work that lead to groundbreaking discoveries.

  8. I’m a fourth year PhD student and I went through all those guilt-filled moments… That I should not complain, that I should enjoy my work such that I wouldn’t mind doing it 24 hours a day, that my personal life is my own problem, etc. I always lived by the thought that all of these mean I’m not passionate enough about my work. I hated science whenever I thought it is being used to dehumanize me… It is a relief to read this… Thank you…

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