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 make an important contribution to science and society in general.
However, the enthusiasm of young scientists is abused by supervisors who are often not even aware of doing so. Unconscious presumptions may let scientists accept poor working conditions.
Supervisors unconsciously set standards
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 have to be available 24/7 to answer immediately to the new fantastic ideas of their supervisor – even at 3 am in the morning.
On the other hand, continuous availability is absolutely 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 in Evernote, arrange a new meeting in Gmail 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 working when I am together with my kids. Read more here: 12 strategies to combine a successful career in science with a healthy family life.
When I work in the night or during weekends I also set standards for my group members. 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 is working during these periods. My work ethics are 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. At least the majority will follow these unspoken rules and will accept the values behind this behavior.
Myths and unspoken rules
There is a number of presumptions which are taken for granted by many scientists although they create poor working conditions and kill the passion in young researchers. The following 4 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 tax payers’ money to follow their passion. They do a great job which is intellectually challenging and may even contribute to the greater good in the world. There is some truth in this statement. Being a scientists can be very satisfying. In a productive group which gets enough grant money there is a lot of space and time to follow up crazy ideas which do not primarily aim at high impact in science and society. In my personal experience, many interesting studies were suggested by PhD students or postdocs who got the permission (equals: 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 and creative directors describe very similar work ethics in their environments. But there is an important 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 to reflect about your working conditions.
Myth No 2: You never work enough!
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 which 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 of 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 this moment I am very sensitive for some types of subtle manipulations which 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. With every success the expectations and goals get bigger. Getting accepted a Nature paper means that you did not get a Cell paper… and getting a Cell paper makes you a one-hit-wonder if you do not publish another one next year… etc. The general hunt for ‘better, bigger and faster results’ is particularly pronounced in life science and technology. Publishing a paper with 50 new factors which are relevant in 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 is good, a triple knockout is better. Transgenic mice with three different cell types labelled 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 burn-out because it is impossible to work enough. 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!
In principle, nearly everybody knows that working 70h per week is not necessarily more productive than 40h. It depends on priorities and efficiency. In addition, 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 in 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 while a working parent has to get the same activity done within less than 30 minutes. Spending a huge amount of time in the lab is not identical to getting a lot of good things done. Consequently, the concept of ‘ideally spending 24 hours in the lab’ should be completely eliminated from scientific work ethics. The quality of the well-defined output should be measured and valued (and not the time spend in the working environment.
Myth No 4: Your private life is your own problem!
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 normally accept this and dare not to mention that the productivity of the group will suffer. They hide their pain more or less and leave the female researchers with the feeling that they do not show enough ambition (= do not work enough). From personal experience I know that staff members with children are normally better organized and more time-efficient – because they have to. They simply have to do their work in the working hours and have to 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, as a man working part-time in academia or industry is often considered as a sign of low ambition and insufficient commitment. 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 have to 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 can be combined with a healthy family life. Read more here: 12 strategies to combine a successful career in science with a healthy family life
In conclusion, the productivity of many research groups may substantially increase when these four myths were well-reflected.
Reflecting on myth No 1: There is no reason to accept that having a great job should stop you to think 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 work place! Define clearly the outcome of your work and the time you want to invest. Then work only during this period in the most effective and efficient way.
Reflecting on myth No 4: Do not sacrifice your private life for your job. Develop your personal strategies to find a healthy balance between career and private life.
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