Thursday, September 30, 2010

More hours, more results?: questions for Professor Scott Kern

In the open thread at In the Pipeline yesterday, Virgil posted a link to an article titled "Where's the Passion?" by Professor Scott Kern at Johns Hopkins. In the article, Professor Kern (an associate professor of oncology in the School of Medicine) laments that, on a random Sunday afternoon in the spring, he could barely find 5% of his building's research staff.

Professor Kern goes on to quantify the vast sums of money that were spent on the highly advanced cancer research center that he works in and that stands mostly empty on Saturday afternoons as well (so sad.) He also notes that the research staff does not seem to work any more than the required 40 hours a week, and that people seem to arrive sometime after 9:30 am and leave sometime around 5 pm. Professor Kern seems frustrated that students rely on faster techniques and commercial reagent kits for their research, but do not seem to be generating more oncology advances in spite of it. All of this, according to the author, betrays a lack of passion from their students and more of a "9-to-5" attitude.

Far be it from me to offer some questions to such a prolific member of such an august medical institution, but I feel that I must:

1. Professor, could it be that your surveys of the building are not measuring things accurately? What about weeknights? That before writing such an impassioned article and publishing it in a journal of research (albeit one with an impact factor of 2.8 (oops, 2.7)), perhaps you should use a more quantitative measurement of time spent in the lab? Surely such an advanced building has a key card system -- doubtless, you could sift through all of that data instead of relying upon personal observation.
2. What percentage, do you think, of your research workforce are 40-hour clockpunchers? I would hazard a guess that they're less than 33%.
3. In the graph above, there are two curves. Which curve do you think reflects reality more? If you choose B, can you suggest a numerical inflection point?
4. Perhaps in your census of the weekend population of the building, you could also perform a CV analysis. Do you think that weekend research hours are correlated with published papers? Would you be willing to wager a small sum (to be donated to the charity of the winner's choice) that 1) the correlation is weak and 2) the research productivity is not much higher for our weekend warriors than the rest of the workforce? (If we're concerned about a Heisenbergian effect, perhaps we could choose another institution.)


  1. That paper made me sad. I didn't know that the only way to show my passion for science was to live in the lab and consider my lab work to have a higher priority over the entire rest of my life.

    I love how he tries the "How can you be selfish enough to take the weekend off when people are DYING of CANCER" argument. And how he manages to spin labour-reducing and time-saving kits as a bad thing. How sad it is that researchers can now finish at five when they used to have to slave away all night at the same protocol!

    Is it selfish of me to take weekends off?

  2. Bleh. I'm so tired of researchers with this attitude. Warm bodies in the lab does not good research make. And I agree that a when a person is pressured to spend a lot of time at work, both their work ethic and productivity decline. Unless I'm really pressed, I probably get more done in a 40 hour week than I do in a 60-70 hour week. Why? Because I'm bloody tired when I work that much! Also burned out.

    I really really wish I could remember who it was (some famous old-timer chem dude) who required his students to take afternoons off "to think." He actually trusted his students. The research world needs more of those people.

  3. I can't speak for anyone else, but after busting my butt in undergrad, then 6-7 years at the Wheel of Pain in grad school/postdoc, being a 40 hr/wk employee is the well-deserved payoff following the inevitable burnout. I'm sick of this Charles Dickens attitude of "live for the job, die for the job, first, last, only and always, forever and ever amen." The people with that same definition of "passion" as this guy's are professors themselves, not research employees.

  4. A6:43a: "Wheel of Pain" - awesome.

  5. I have this belief that only a certain type of person is fundamentally "wired" to completely give themselves to their job. The rest of us just try (and fail) at faking this enthusiasm. Most of us, at the end of the day, are really inspired by things more than just science. I also think that the big science push of the 90's brought a lot of people into science that are just not wired to be martyrs for the cause. They wanted hard working inspiring careers for which to raise families on. I'm willing to bet, that most of these people do the insanity hours for shear survival-ism and not passion (thank you economy). In the mean time, people are just burning out while making it look like they are enthusiastic for their job.

    I'm not convinced that this is limited to just science anymore, but it's still pretty bad in chemistry.

    Maybe if we spent more time having relationships outside of lab, with our loved ones who are going to die of cancer, we would be more inspired to work harder in the lab to cure cancer, but that is just crazy talk.

  6. maybe the problem is also with the employer; from up close I can tell you that Johns Hopkins is the most bureaucratic institution that I saw and I worked for - and that includes even East Europe under communism. There are very good research groups here and inspiring advisors to be sure but I can easily understand how one would end up less than eager to show up for work on Sunday morning here. I stopped doing it myself some time ago.

    {You would not believe the hoops one has to go through just to be employed at JHU, and the emphatic unhelpfulness, unprofessionalism and outright bad manners of their central HR.}

  7. Lab Rat - I would say it is selfish of you to take weekends off. Find another occupation!

  8. When I was in grad school, I had to run scores of sequencing gels and therefore work late nights. Nowadays, you can just hand that sample to the sequencing lab and do other things in parallel.. and yes, also go home early, instead of coming back into the lab after dinner to stay well past Late Night with David Letterman.. yes, I am that old

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  10. I've calmed down, a less ranty response....

    @Old Timer: So your advice to budding science students is either to make coming in weekends a regular part of work (that, in reminder, we're getting paid £12k a year for) or to find another job? I think that's a good way to make a nice leaky pipeline.

    I love science. I love bacteria. But I also love my fiancé, and I hope in time I will have children to love as well. I love holidays. I love hanging out with friends. I love meeting up with my sister.

    Is taking weekends off for the other things I love honestly an act of selfishness? Would you accuse a Doctor of the same crime on his weekends off? A social worker?

    Who *is* allowed a weekend off!

    And to answer your question I'm afraid I can't just 'find a new profession'. Partially because this is a recession we're in a the moment, and partially because there is NOTHING in the world I'd love doing for a job as much as science.

    A passion is something you love, enjoy and feel strongly about. It does not have to be something that has enveloped and consumed your whole life.

    [also I need my weekends. I need to shop for food, do the laundry, clean the house, do the washing up and catch up on the ironing. Maybe you have a robot to do that...]

  11. The inflection point for me is about 50 hours/week. Beyond that, I get sick! Then I'm not productive for the next week at all.
    However...I do work weekends. Usually both days. This isn't by choice so much as it's when instruments I need are available! By my reckoning, though, if I'm working Saturday and Sunday, I can go home at 4 PM a few days a week without feeling too guilty.

  12. The 4 x ten or twelve hour week is ideal. You get in, work super hard to make sure things get finished, and then enjoy a long, well-earned weekend. Slopping through 60-80 hr weeks, you simply cannot be hyper-productive for that long, so you waste massive amounts of time to stay sane.

  13. From my observations, there really is no consensus regarding what is an appropriate amount of time to commit to labwork. Many factors dictate how productive one can be in performing research. When an entire sequence of reactions runs (uexpectedly) smoothly, then long hours can be avoided. Plug-and-chug chemistry, especially if it's amenable to high-throughput analysis/screening (e.g., GC or LC-MS yields) can be done fairly quickly, resulting in filled notebooks & quick publications. However, if you have to make unstable reagents or optimize some difficult recrystallization, then 168 hours a week may not be enough. Furthermore, how much time is REALLY spent in front of the fume hood or some analytical instrument? Unless you're completely antisocial or universally disliked by your labmates, it's possible to waste a few hours talking about science & whatever else.

    In grad school (I didn't get the chance to do a postdoc), my typical work schedule was 7 days a week, 12 hours per day. My department's NMRs were heavily booked, so even the best-laid plans often had to be adjusted for botched reactions, fire alarms, or unexpected workup problems. Besides research, my labmates and I often had to teach because of funding/staffing issues in the department. Still my PI didn't enforce a work schedule on anyone, so it was fully my choice to work 84 to 100-hour weeks. My friends who graduated from medical school had similar, more hellish work schedules in their residencies. Fine, they may get more prestige and future income as doctors, but a germophobe like me would rather run columns than deal with the physically/mentally ill or witness death regularly.

    Although the author of the cited article may have been a bit too nosey for keeping track of the work schedules of those NOT in his own group, I am going to risk sounding like an A-hole by agreeing with his assertion that the sub-40-hour per week cancer researchers are LAZY. Here goes the ranting: at my graduate school, the biomedical researchers were paid higher stipends than the chemists, had better chances of securing NIH/NSF/HHMI grants, were able to churn out more publications using data generated from purchased kits, cell lines, and reagents. In comparison to the chemists, the biomedical researchers got more clout for "finding cures to diseases and deducing the mysteries of life"...yeah, for engineered organisms in vitro. Money aside, it would have been nice to receive some more recognition as research chemists.

  14. Lab Rat, I'm pretty sure that comment was a joke.

    milkshake, I've heard an interesting/troubling story about the competitiveness in the chem program at JH. Sounds to me like you'd agree that it's not a terribly healthy environment.

  15. I think each group operates in different style, it greatly depends on the personality of the boss and the other people that you work with. (The rude BS from the central HR, the red tape and $125/month on-campus parking permit hardly help one to feel fuzzy about the place. Yet, if the colleagues happen to be decent people, if the boss is not a douche and if one gets an exciting project and enough other good things are happening in life then I suppose it can balance itself out.)

  16. @Milkshake:
    Having worked at Hopkins and elsewhere, I can bring you the unfortunate news that it is *not* the most bureaucratic organization around. Try just about any government organization (including the UC system). I know it's shocking, but it's true.

    And having worked at Hopkins, I can say that Prof. Kern is exaggerating when he rails about the 40 hour work week. I can't remember any grad students or postdocs who worked like that on a regular basis. As for technicians, I'd say that they're entitled to a normal work schedule.

    As for the notion that cancer researchers aren't allowed to have time off, I think that's ludicrous. The goal of cancer research (as with biomedical research generally) is to improve the lives of others. Where is it written that doing that requires you to give up your own life?

    And as others have said, more time does not necessarily equal more productivity. I think science nowadays over emphasizes pumping out results and underemphasizes thought and creativity. And cancer research has lots of the former, and I think too little of the latter.

  17. Anonymous: My comment was not a joke.
    Lab Rat and anyone else who thinks they deserve a Ph.D.: You don't.
    I am all for evolution in the workplace, but this new breed of graduate student that thinks they should get a Ph.D. because they show up and 'feel passionate' 8 hours per day is BS. I hope you are only working toward a M.S. and not a Ph.D. Somewhere along the line, people started thinking that a M.S. degree means your inferior in some way. It does NOT. An M.S. means you are someone who is passionate about science, wants the weekend off and cares about outside hobbies. A Ph.D. means you are so passionate about science, you PREFER to have labwork be your hobby. This does not mean you need to destroy your home life. You can have a wife and kids etc. Cutting the grass (if you're so lucky), doing laundry, cleaning the house, watching movies with the family etc, does NOT take an entire weekend. It takes Sat night and maybe Sun night. The rest of your time, subtle sirens of the lab should be beckoning. Not because your adviser wants you to work, but because you LOVE science.
    Who IS allowed a weekend off - most people without Ph.D.s! Plumbers, carpenters, millwrights, mechanics, landscapers, programmers, M.S.-level techs etc. - all outstanding, high-paying professions you should consider. Who DOESN'T take weekends off - doctors, small business owners, most bankers - i.e. people passionate about their work! You can take a weekend off when you absolutely need to recharge, but that should only be every few months.
    If you think there is no other occupation for you in this economy, it just goes to show you lack vision.

  18. Holy cow, "old timer", if I didn't know better I'd think you were an internet troll!

    Thanks for the lecture on how long it should take to "clean the house, cut the grass" etc. Just for good measure let's add in a few more extra-curricular activities that are an essential part of a well-rounded person's life...

    Playing with one's children and helping with their homework (unless you can afford a private tutor), cooking good meals so you don't have to eat the god-awful food served in most academic institutions, exercise and sports, fixing the house, fixing the car (unless you walk to work uphill both ways in the snow), domestic paperwork (bills, insurance, the minefield that is healthcare, on-line banking), reading the newspaper to stay informed, shopping for clothes (esp. for children, who grow super fast), commuting to/from the lab, making telephone calls to close relatives in our home country (yes, we're immigrants - I bet that probably annoys you!)

    This is not a luxurious life, just a snapshot of a typical weekend for a family of 4 where both parents work in academia, and have no instant-help (grandparents) to call upon. In case you hadn't looked outside in the last 3 decades, it's no longer possible to support a family on a single income. It can be done, but it isn't fun (especially if you enjoy things like having some savings in case the water heater explodes, or maybe you want to retire one day). This is just the reality of everyday life for those in the trenches who struggle to pay the required 85% of their salary from research grants.

    So, by all means, come live my life, in academia, and do everything I do on a weekend. Maybe if you're lucky I might let you watch the same 1 hour a week of TV that I get to watch. Maybe you can watch the movie I've had waiting in the NetFlix envelope for 3 months? If you're extra nice, I might let you spend more than 10-minutes eating lunch at the lab-bench (I can't remember the last time I took a proper lunch break). Just for kicks, maybe you can do all of the above, and then try volunteering for the community, or donating your hard-earned cash to charity (as I do). Just don't ever, ever, think about calling me a slacker when I leave at 5pm. That would make you, sir, a douchenozzle.

  19. Douchenozzle hahaha! I love it! But I don't know what an 'internet troll' means.
    You miss the point. There is nothing wrong with living the life you describe - it's just not the life of an academic. Many occupations provide the downtime you need to do the things you describe. You should have done one of those. You are NOT lazy for leaving at 5pm - you just have other things to do. For an academic, the "other things to do" is more research.

  20. Here's a thought problem for you... would you rather recruit 10 PhDs who work about 50 hours a week, or 1 that works 80? That's 500 hours versus 80 hours of research activity. That is the 'old' way of looking at it and where did that get us? About 30-50% of the students aren't even from our country anymore.

    Oh, and fuck you.

  21. Just so you sound like you know what you're talking about in the future, it's called a 'Gedankenexperiment' - and yours is a poorly designed one. I would simply prefer people who are passionate about their work. There are many graduate students putting in 50 hours a week getting nothing done. Learn to do science or go do something else.

  22. Ah chemistry ... they brought in so many of us scientists who hoped to reap the reward of a blue collar work ethic (by getting a Ph. D. mind you! That's how it was sold from 1990-2006?), and then the economy crashed ... and now the academics and want to be clock punchers plus are now having such wonderful wonderful dialogue.

  23. Old Timer, What did you expect was going to happen to the academic field of chemistry? You bring more money, more bodies, more diversity of talent, and you only pay these workers in roughly the currency of educational merit. The private research market crashes, and now academia seems to produce the lions share of research jobs PERIOD in this country. Unless jobs come back, we have to at least have an understanding of each other, or you are no worse than a Fox News pundit who exclaims more or less "let them eat cake". As inglorious as it sounds, and as a postdoc and still somewhat close to the ranks, "grad student" is a new occupation for young adults in this country. It's one of the few occupations that at least gets you out of your parents house, and makes you fiscal in the moment with respect to your student loan obligations. These people might have no desire to pursue the passion as deeply as you do, but the NIH is still cranking out the funding, the Universities still want TAs, and the professors are never going to say no to the labor.

  24. Maybe I'm gonna get flamed, but I actually see some merit/logic to Old Timer's argument. Lots of undergrads come to college thinking they're going to be doctors, then they realize how much work it is and they do something else. There's even some people that go to medical school and aren't ready for the level that the programs run. Yes, some are lazier/less smart than others, but the minimum is pretty damn high and you can't make it if you aren't absolutely committed.

    There's nothing wrong with making Ph.Ds the same and there should also be no shame in taking a Master's if you don't feel that type of commitment. There were plenty of lazy people in my department (and yes, I believe 40 hr weeks is lazy in grad school) and making the programs more difficult would weed these types of people out. I still don't think professors should be tyrannical, but maybe not having to try and motivate people whose hearts aren't really into research would help ease their neuroticism (probably not). At the very least, they would be saddled with students who were nearly as neurotic and more likely to be understanding of their mentality rather than feel oppressed by it.

  25. Anymous 3:59 I wouldn't necessary flame you, but that was the status quo ten years ago, at minimum. Those were the days of 2 years masters programs and four years for a Ph. D.

    That is not how grad school has been marketed to a great number of Ph. D.s in the field. Are you going to simply just discredit that decade they put into their life? Are you going marginalize their passion for science because really, they are only trying to be working families in one of the few careers that offer a middle class lifestyle anymore?

    Many of us would have gotten our masters and a real job, if that was really sold to us as an option. Now we want to go back to the good ole days when a "Ph. D. meant something more".

    And given how graduate studies are designed, there is stigma attached to getting only your masters because in most research institutions, a master means a) you quit or b) you got thrown out. With the lack of jobs in the "real world" what's the incentive to leave with just your masters anymore. I agree with you in principle, but the real world is not there anymore.

    Maybe if they paid researchers in MONEY as opposed to EDUCATION. There wouldn't be this controversy.

  26. On that thought, if you are truly passionate about the integrity of your Ph. D., hire techs, not grad students, and then try to get grant money.

  27. I agree with Old Timer. I work extra hours out of the love of science (AND I have a MS). I chose a MS because I knew the field of chemistry was very crowded, and I wanted to have my choice of workplace. As a bonus a MS allows me to spend more time in the lab. :-)
    Anyone that is getting a PhD and leaving early is extremely lazy and should be unemployable. Other slackers include all the medical school flunk outs who happened to get shit-lucky to get their foot into the door when recruiting was high in medicinal chemistry. A lot of times these are the people who are best schmoozing with the bosses (or playing games), so they are not chosen for layoffs even though they do not produce. Now these are some people who should leave the field and make room for those with true passion!!!

  28. I think it is hilarious, and damned ironic that Scott Kern is spouting the "we can cure cancer" nonsense. Someone as well-informed as him should understand what a fiction this is! If we were truly 6-18 months away from curing cancer, I assume that everyone posting here would gladly work 80 or 100+ hrs a week. But the absurdly incremental progress that is state-of-the-art today? What a joke- as if another 10 hrs a week makes any serious impact on a "cure."

  29. We Are Anonymous, We Are Unemployed, And We Are Legion.October 2, 2010 at 8:56 AM

    Nice to know I gave up my entire twenties, having any kind of life and most of my hair only to be 'unemployable' and get called lazy by some internet jerkoff.

    The PhD job market is what is has been made by those that came before us. Don't you dare FOR SHAME to lecture me on how I must navigate it! If those three little letters after a name are SOOOOOO sacrosanct, so denoting of a priestly class of self-obsessive all-consuming 'passion,' well then, maybe maybe academics across the country wouldn't be pumping them out like salmonella-laden egg farms. You use grad students as a source of mass cheap labor? Then guess what you end up with.

  30. @6:55:

    Cure? You mean another expensive, lifelong "treatment." Yeah, there's something to get passionate about.

  31. Old-timer is a fool who is revelling in standards that no longer apply to our profession.

    To put into perspective: yes, I worked 60-70 hours/week on my doctoral research, in the effort to please my research director. The research director, however saw no real need to provide the least assitance to his former students beyond writing the obligatory reference letter. Let alone the job market. But he made the transition into a quasi-retired gentleman-scientist living off of his German state pension. Top of the Ponzi scheme, so to speak after becoming former president of the GdCh.

    Yes, I work out of passion, even w/o getting paid right now and while wondering how to pay the rent for October. And not to end up on the streets of Camden, New Jersey.

  32. If you were so passionate, why didn't you leave with a Masters? Whether there is a stigma or not, wouldn't you want to leave at a point in which you knew you could stay in your beloved lab? Ah, yes, but like so many before you dreamed of sitting in an office having BS and MS reports do your science for you so you can become a 35-40hr/wk overpaid PowerPoint junky. Maybe even protect your cushy PhD dream job by selling out the people who discover medicines in the labs by outsourcing everything because to you its "just another compound". Just another number to report to your director so they keep YOU alone out of the unemployment line. Just another paycheck owed to you because you went got a PhD in your 20s. Forget science, you are owed by society because you have three little letters after your name.

    I gave up my 20s through long work weeks as well, though not for a PhD. I was in an pharma lab by choice working to save patients from diseases through synthetic chemistry and quality medchem design. What happened? I was outsourced out of my job. Why design QUALITY compounds when you can buy CHEAP QUANTITY from China? Piss poor decisions made by PhDs that have been outside of the lab for too long have destroyed our field. If they do not stop cow-towing to their upper management there may not be anything left in the US or Europe in 10 years. You think China/India will sell science to us forever? Not hardly. You think if things continue as they are, that China and India will even sell products to the US? We won't even be worth the trouble of establishing distribution chains when US technologies have finished withering away.

    My passion for science allowed me to quickly land on my feet. I was creative and was able to find a way to continue what I love. If you don't have the enough passion to stay in the game, then we will not miss you when you leave the field.

  33. Anonymous @8:40

    Leave the game and do what exactly. Make meth? Knock up a towny and get on welfare?

    Look it would be so convenient if all of us just would get abducted by aliens, colonize mars, or vaporize into thin air, seeing the mere presence of copious burnt out Ph. D.s is an offense to everyone's ego. The same personality quirk that makes us obsess over that compound our advisers desperately want us to make also makes us impervious to the world at large, and the economic machinations that be. We aren't economists. We aren't marketing majors. We are scientists.

    This would be NON ISSUE if there were research positions, instead everyone is blaming "over achieving", "entitlement", or "ego". It is fair to blame outsourcing. Personally, I just didn't want to half ass something, and I hold my personal commitments dear. Or maybe it was because most Ph. D. granting institutions are kind of in the boonies where it isn't exactly feasible to make an easy transition into the private sector. Well, unless you get kicked out, then you finally get the time to research work outside of acedamia.

    For me though, it's called PRIDE, and if that is a liability in the new economy, then so be it. I will not be lynched or judged for my desire to honor my commitments. The letters behind my name are completely incidental (and in this day and age, they are almost a joke) They just happen to cost a lot in the way of money and human will and I can't afford to work for peanuts, prestige, and papers anymore. Even at that, postdocs still get pay more than flipping burgers or pouring coffee. So ... yes, I do work on weekends.

    Do I love science, yes? Do I love it enough to answer to self righteous jackasses who really just got lucky, I suppose we'll find out in a few years.

  34. Scientists today must learn how to communicate the research needs to the business leaders. This is necessary for survival. They must have the courage to stand up with the conviction necessary to save their fields for today and tomorrow. Fear should not be a barrier to science. If scientists do not speak up, things will never change for the better.

  35. There seems to be two issues consistently repeated in one form or another throughout this thread: MS is a sign of failure and there are no other 'fields' employing scientists. Both of these seem ridiculous to me. While it has be a couple years since I've walked the halls of these institutions, the last time I was at Merck, Pfizer, GSK, Lilly, Abbott or Roche, I consistently heard "this MS chemist is worth 10 Ph.D.s" and "that MS chemist is smarter than anyone we have on this floor." There are a TON of smart MS-level chemists kicking ass in industry and loving science. I don't understand what shame there is in that!

    As for "what else is a scientist to do?" Give me a break! Of the 15 or so organic Ph.D. students that graduated with me a couple of years ago, 10 of them have gone on to patent law, consulting, scientific adviser for Congress, venture capital, wall street and further education (MBA, JD, MD etc). The other 5 are working as organic chemists in one capacity or another. As scientists, you would think our imaginations would run wild thinking about the myriad of ways we could use our rigorous logic to make a living...

  36. Wow this thread has managed to arouse some strong emotions and perhaps unconver biases among scientists! My two cents on this issue: considering how failure-prone research can be, academic science should not be automatically treated like a 40-hour work week by degree-seeking candidates and postdocs. However, if all your experiments go according to plan within a 40-hour week, then kudos to you. I definitely know that I can make up for my deficiencies by working harder and longer.

    Oldtimer and others may be a bit indiscriminate in calling the 9-to-5 crowd lazy, but it's also unfair for the opposing side to deride OT and his ilk as one-dimensional, sanctimonious zealots. Assuming that human societies are comprised of various Gaussian Distribution groups, outliers have roles to fill just like the 95% of "normal and balanced" people. Perhaps the lack of recent technical innovation in several important fields (e.g., alternative energy) is due to a dearth of zealots who are willing to commit their lives to particularly challenging research. As a borderline atheist, I can use this assertion to criticize the inherent hypocrisy in practiced religions, but I'll leave that for another forum!

    At the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe that many current problems in the academic-industrial complex stem from the proliferation of mediocre or outright sub-par PhDs over the past decade. I'm not claiming to be a brilliant scientist myself, but I was surprised that even the prestigious program that I attended accepted applicants who scored BELOW the 50th percentile on the Chemistry GRE or had MULTIPLE C's in their undergrad chemistry classes. Fine...tests aren't everything, people pick specializations in grad school, and whatever politcally correct crap to make everyone feel was still unnerving to see people enter the PhD program with a tenuous grasp of molecular geometry and thermodynamics and exit with MARGINALLY stronger command of the those fundamentals. Before anyone rebuffs by saying, "At least they were productive in lab," I can assure you that several graduated AND got jobs without even publishing!

    Why should anyone get paid $100K or more per year just to screen a bunch of bioisosteres and purify compounds on Biotage? Well-trained BS and MS chemists are just as capable as PhD's at running HPLC's and optimizing synthetic processes. There are many other occupations that are more hazardous and yet even less appreciated than synthetic chemistry. Perhaps research universities should be less pretentious and set up "Professional Masters" programs to accomodate the vast majority of science majors who simply want the 9-to-5 job.

  37. I agree with anonymous. A lot of the problems we're seeing now can be traced to large research groups with subpar students. These people should NOT be getting Ph.D.s! Attrition rates should be going way up with the number of talented undergraduates choosing professions other than chemistry (and rightly so). But departments are used to a certain number of matriculating students each year and complain about the low quality of the "current batch." Time to drop the numbers or increase attrition.

  38. Hear hear Old Timer! :-) There are many talented MS scientists (many who work more than 9-to-5). (Gasp! These "quitters" are doing good science?) Additionally, people need to just stop bitching and moaning about how it is not fair that there are no jobs in chemistry and be a little more open minded.

    When I was laid off by my former employer I did not have trouble finding a job. Others who I know who lost their jobs at the same time are having much harder times. The difference? Just a little creativity and an open mind. Is the economy closed for chemists? Definetly not! In the past year I have turned down four recruiters offering me interviews (out of the blue through unsolicited calls) since I am very happily employed at a good company doing what I love. Keep your eyes and your heart open and you will never be hurting for work in chemistry.

  39. Yes I'm angry old timer, and as much I agree with your principles and ideals of merit, they just don't exist anymore. I would have rather spent my 20's making money and being passionate about my work instead of chasing this "prestige". Yet that is NOT how the Ph. D.s were marketed. Am I subpar chemist or Ph. D., maybe? maybe not. That doesn't mean that I simply disappear just so you can sleep better at night. But in the meantime, a man's got to eat and a man's got to live. And if you are willing to donate more money for even more excessive higher learning as an MBA or LD, be my guest. I'm not going into 300k of student loan debt just to get a job in the 40-50 k range (just how far are wages going to drop? and I'm already in my 30s)

    I've had it up to here with the old guard, and during my time of unemployment, I would have loved to harness my seething anger and start my own business and write proposals. However unemployment is often literature blind, and that turned into an obvious dead end.

    One more thought. How common is it for Ph. D.s lie about their credentials to get their foot in the door? That awesome M.S., do you think there is a slight chance he actually did get his Ph. D. in another life but lied to get the job just to pay the bills?

  40. I know a ton of talented, hard-working Ph.D.s also currently unemployed, but that's not the subject of this thread. People can be upset about spending their 20s working hard in the lab, but the simple fact of life is that anyone who has been successful in his or her field also spent their 20s working their asses off! Whether it's acting, banking, law or starting a business. It's called BEING PASSIONATE!

  41. Excuses, excuses. Got a university library nearby? There are other ways of keeping up on the literature than a work computer. Quit thinking about your prestige and hoping someone will hand you something on a golden platter. The only way that you will get opportunities is to get over yourself and go find them.

    I've seen at least one example of the stellar MS in action. That guy did not lie, did not complain about prestige. And yes he wiped the floor with other PhD leaders on his project. He simply concentrated on what he did best--science.

  42. Hey, folks:

    I'm so glad that you're all here debating this issue (and doing so civilly). However, all the Anons are getting rather confusing, and it's difficult to follow who's talking to who.

    Can I suggest that you pick your favorite dead chemist's name as a pseudonym to be signed at the end of your comments?

  43. H.E. FISCHER aka "Anonymous"
    OCTOBER 2, 2010 2:50 PM
    OCTOBER 2, 2010 1:58 PM
    OCTOBER 2, 2010 9:54 AM
    OCTOBER 2, 2010 8:40 AM
    OCTOBER 1, 2010 4:39 PM

  44. Hi folks, PeptideChemist here.

    Yikes! H.E. Fischer, do you have Chemjobber as an RSS Feed? Look at all those posts, you must be getting alerts every hour! Anyway, getting back to the thread topic, I don't think there can be a universal standard of time to be spent in a research lab. But, I do agree with Anon (10/2 @ 1:17 PM) that grad school and postdoc can't be treated as routine jobs. After all, in academic research is *not* supposed to be routine, especially when everyone is claiming to do cutting-edge research.

    Having read the original Nature article which has elicited so much debate here on Chemjobber as well as In the Pipeline, I agree with the author with respect to the work schedule of many molecular biologists, although I won't go so far as to question anyone's passion for research. As the now-defunct Tenderbutton once pointed out using a photo of a Stanford research building, chemists often work longer hours than the biologists. However, it wouldn't be fair to compare the quality of research between different disciplines. I understand that biologists have to wait for cells to grow, verify the purity of plasmids, and do other tasks that simply require unattended time.

    However, I don't think any research building should be completely idle during non-holiday weekends. Even though Johns Hopkins is a private university, it still receives a massive amount of public (i.e., taxpayer) money. When I was getting my PhD, I felt an obligation not only to myself but also to the public to do my best and work my ass off in the lab. Even though my research may, at best, have provided trivial benefit to society, I could sleep well (6 hours on average) knowing that I didn't utterly squander grant money.

    Despite all the bitching about how unfair the "academic-industrial complex" (BTW nice term, Anon @ 1:17) has treated its people, most of us have to admit that we weren't FORCED into the PhD track. Humans are exquisitely adept at making stupid decisions, so learn from your mistakes and adapt, even if you have to drop another $300,000 for the supplementary JD or MBA. (Besides, part of being American is embracing debt, right?)

    Some of the early posters on this thread have dismissed the value of working more since "we're not going to cure cancer soon anyway." Bear in mind that the original Nature article describes the nonstop research efforts to develop polio vaccines. Also, the greatest technological advances such as those of the Industrial Revolution were achieved with atrocious labor laws. Furthermore, post-WWII reconstruction made possible by nonstop toil. Finally, here's a joke that I recently heard at the lunch table: There are 10^87 electrons in the universe; fortunately there are 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians who can figure out how to put them into the right molecules.

    PeptideChemist signing off, y'all!

  45. "Anonymous said...
    Here's a thought problem for you... would you rather recruit 10 PhDs who work about 50 hours a week, or 1 that works 80? That's 500 hours versus 80 hours of research activity. That is the 'old' way of looking at it and where did that get us? About 30-50% of the students aren't even from our country anymore.

    Oh, and fuck you.

    October 1, 2010 2:31 PM"

    Not exactly what I would call civil, eh Chemjobber? Anwyay, I can tell you that most professors would like 10 PhDs who work about 80 hours per week.

    Antoine Lavoisier

  46. Lavoisier, didn't see that when I posted.

    A2:31p: Please keep it somewhat civil. Thanks.

  47. @ PeptideChemist: "Yikes! H.E. Fischer, do you have Chemjobber as an RSS Feed?"

    I'm normally never post. I just got a taken up in the debate, specifically about some anon. negative comments made about MS chemists. I agree with you--noone is forced into a PhD. Those who complain that noone told them that a MS was an option just do not want to deal with their own choices.

  48. @HEFischer: Overall I don't think that this thread seeks to deride MS chemists. Also, as PeptideChemist points out, the author in the Nature article gives an account of biomedical, not chemical, research activities at JHU. I think that most American synthetic chemists (including the inorganics) have no problems performing 40 hours of research, both at the bench and reading literature. As others have already mentioned, academic research should not be treated like a routine job. In grad school, lab time becomes protracted because of teaching obligations, instrument failures, unfamiliarity with techniques, and ubiquitous socializing. Upon entering industry, good organizational skills along with minimal distractions should allow most essential work to be done within 40 hours.

    Anyway, I do believe that there is WAY TOO MUCH whining about "how bad we have it as chemists in the US". Give me a break! We're not in Darfur or Myanmar! At least we can collect unemployment, which in New Jersey maxes out at $2500 gross per month (including the federal supplement). Plus, we can always live off our credit cards, which is not an option available to most people in the world.

    Unfortunately, I think that many PhD chemists take pride in their degrees rather than their research. They get a sense of entitlement which takes a beating in tough economic times. Hence they whine about how they "didn't go to X school and work for Y professor just to make Z amount of money." Academic and industrial organic chemistry is dominated by the intellectual progeny of ~20 extant professors who aren't inclined to welcome graduates from podunk institutions (no offense intended). I know this sounds callous, but I've found that hiring managers who worked for no-name or deceased professors are less exclusive and more open to hiring people based on talent and personality rather than pedigree.


  49. Gee, Lavoisier, thanks for busting me. Sorry for the language. I had wanted to say that to Scott Kern (note his article was NOT in Nature) but Old Timer had the requisite note of arrogance that rankles me so.

    "this MS chemist is worth 10 Ph.D.s"..."good thing we only pay him half as much as one"

    "that MS chemist is smarter than anyone we have on this floor." ... "so fire all of them and have him teach some Chinese how to do it. Yes, we'll fire him next year, don't worry."

  50. @Anon 8:09 Oops, I was going by what PeptideChemist said. I think that s/he mixed up the Kern article from Pipeline with the postdoc saboteur article in THAT's some f*cked up sh*t. (Ha, language loophole!)

    But seriously, being a synthetic chemist is stressful enough. We're already over-worked, under-appreciated, and overly reliant on an inbred field for socio-economic mobility. To add insult to injury, our craft is degenerating into a Third-World commodity! (PeptideChemist: "There are 10^87 electrons in the universe; fortunately there are 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians who can figure out how to put them into the right molecules.") We're already having problems with QC/QA at US manufacturing sites; can you imagine the oversight problems from Third World Pharma?

    Kern may be a bit creepy for spying on his department's researchers. As one of the previous Anons suggested, Kern should not overstep his bounds and chastise the lackeys of other PI's. If one is to lead by example, then the PI's should also show up on the weekends and nights. Hey, they should work for the mighty asterisk, right?

    Try to give Old Timer the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps s/he has witnessed extensive exploitation and mistreatment of MS chemists by parasitic PhD lab heads. Don't give her/him too much benefit though; s/he kinda sounds like a graduate from one of the "elite" organic programs.

    Bon soir, Lavoisier.

  51. @Lavoisier "Anyway, I do believe that there is WAY TOO MUCH whining about "how bad we have it as chemists in the US". Give me a break!"

    "For me though, it's called PRIDE, and if that is a liability in the new economy, then so be it. "
    anon October 2, 2010 9:07 AM

    I think Lavoisier has hit the nail on the head. There is WAY too much whining from chemists. There are opportunities out there, you just have to be open to them. PRIDE is a liability, and not just in bad economies. In good economies you may be able to get by with huge amounts of PRIDE but it will always slow you down. Question your pre-conceived notions about yourself. Question the pre-conceived notions about your field. If you do this you will be able to see the opportunities.

  52. Anonymous @9:07, 4:11, 4:10, 3:11

    Well, at least I'm passionate, but I'm lacking patience.

    The library thing, not to get side tracked, but that's a funny story. I go to the University library, and it so happens that some Universities require student/faculty ID to even enter. I asked them how I could remedy this, and they offered a library pass for 250 bucks for something like 4 months. Had I known how long I was going to be out of work, I would have just paid it. Still, that is a lot of money for literature access. I asked my former University for an online library pass, but no dice. The whole experience has made a believer of open publication, when at first I was completely indifferent.

  53. Please, everyone with some sense of self-worth and sanity, please stop feeding the internet trolls. Those who think we researchers don't deserve an outside life (including meaningful amounts of contact with our families) or who think we should be eager to give up our "pride" don't deserve replies.

    Getting back to the original topic, it was my experience at Hopkins (not at Kimmel, but cancer researchers are generally considered to be workaholics) was that students and postdoc routinely work well over 40hr/week. I think Kern's assessment is simply not to be trusted on this point.

  54. If you are REALLY good, then you will have a job/academic position. Are you really talented?

    In science you can do whatever you want, and grad school gives you the opportunity to follow YOUR OWN ideas to inventions and discoveries.

    But if you find yourself playing video games, not publishing and just messing around for 6 years. PLEASE stop whining and complaining that you were misled by science and your supervisor.

    If you are terrible or at best mediocre, you will struggle like everyone else. It’s tough out there in the real world.

    It sickened me to see how much wasted money goes to funding bad ideas, bad grad students, and PIs whose job it seems to travel and drink it up at conferences on my tax dollars.

    ANYONE can get into grad school, stop thinking that you are among the chosen elite. It’s time to wake up and realize that graduate school can be a big waste of time if YOU don’t do anything.

    There are only so many cushy government jobs out there, so work hard and make something of yourself, or leave and do something else because obviously you are so gifted and talented to be a chemistry graduate student.

  55. I was in computer software, and there, as in many other fields people confuse "face time" with productivity. You really can only put in so many hours before your brain shuts down. Sure, there are times when one has to sprint and put in the hours, but those are episodic. When they are over, the hours go back to normal.

    Part of the problem is that there are jobs where hours are proportional to work. If you are milling machine parts or gutting chickens, you do so many an hour. More hours mean more parts or more chickens, but more hours don't mean more research, more good ideas or even more useful observations. Unfortunately, there isn't a good metric that works instead. Closing off a dead end alley can be just as useful as moving down the right boulevard.

    Unfortunately, this had societal impact. You often hear people complaining about working more and more hours. Then you go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site and discover that the average work week has been falling in the United States since the 1950s. The disconnect shows up in the time use studies.

    Employers buy employees two ways, by the hour or by the year. (Salaries are usually quoted per annum.) The low end end employees (the non-exempts) cost per hour, so smart bosses minimize their hours. This actually sucks, but you don't hear a lot of whining because most blogs, articles and what not are written by higher paid exempt employees.

    These exempt employees get no additional pay for additional hours, so management pushes them to put in more hours, directly or indirectly. So, while the bagger at the supermarket would love to get 30 hours and qualify for health insurance, the PhD chemist would love to get down to 50 hours a week and a learn the names of his or her children.

    These two effects: the lack of a productivity metric and exempt employee status result in pressure for more face time. If researchers were paid by the hour, you can bet you'd see strict 40 hour week enforcement and much more lab automation and production efficiency. Not that this would get us a cure for cancer any sooner: "Ooh, ooh, I figured it out. It was so obvious! Let me just punch in on the time clock, and mankind will be free of this wretched scourge forever." Ka-thunk! "Now, what was that idea again?"

  56. IIRC, one of the physician bloggers on Science-Based Medicine said 'cancer is not a disease, it is many diseases". And there are so many diseases worth curing: asthma, various psychiatric disorders, et al.

    However, it is never worth spending time at work just to show up, like the Japanese do - come in before the boss gets there, leave after the boss leaves, unless he invites you and colleagues to go out partying. Most of the pre-boss and post-boss time isn't spent working, rather spent on reading newspapers and other time killing activities. It's all part of social protocol.

    If there is no legitimate reason to be at work, have a life! You never know where your next good idea will come from. You will not lament on your deathbed that you wish you had spent more time at work. In this economy, there may be an unrelated sideline you can turn into an enjoyable additional source of income (no, I'm
    not talking about scAmway). Enjoy nature

    Enjoy nature, travel, friends, family. Life is short. When at work, work hard, and with passion. Just don't spend your the majority of your time there to the detriment of your life.

  57. From a non-scientist: Anyone every heard about "the law of diminishing returns?"

  58. Hey Jablonski,

    Yes, it's crazy about the literature situation. Essentially all Uni libraries now have card readers at the door, and usually no system to get access as an independent researcher. Next year JACS will be electronic only, so you can't even scrounge old issues from colleagues! Secondly, no-one has paper copies of chem abstracts anymore (not that I would wish that on anyone).

    Soon, soon, non-affiliated folks will be as totally shut out from the literature as scientists in developing nations. At least they get free access from some publishers!

  59. @Old Timer: You may have left and got swamped by the anonymouses. And I will admit, I may be being a little unfair in the way I'm responding.

    You are correct, I am currently not a PhD student. I am a part time research assistant. I get into the lab at nine, and leave at five. When I get home I do the washing up, organise my emails, do whatever the next stage of the clothes washing is, then collapse infront of the TV and pass out for a few hours. When I return, I do some work on the computer before heading to bed. Sometimes instead of doing that, I play the flute or do some fiction writing. Does that show my lack of passion for science.

    "doing laundry, cleaning the house, watching movies with the family etc, does NOT take an entire weekend. It takes Sat night and maybe Sun night." Maybe I'm just really inefficient at cleaning, but I tend not to have much time on the weekends when I'm not either cleaning, sleeping, going out with my fiance or doing work on the computer. Sometimes when my fiance is working the weekend shift I head into the lab for a bit.

    Maybe when I'm actually meant to work full time as a PhD student I will put in longer hours, but I'm not sure how many more hours I could manage before falling over sideways.

    It's OK that you don't want me in your lab, I think the feeling is probably mutual at this point.

    [I already have an MS]

  60. All this talk of obligatory 60-80 hours a week is dumb unless there is some benefit to the students or society. Too many f us slave away in the lab and maybe get lucky enough to publish papers (which will probably have no impact on society) without learning how to think, be creative or come up with new ideas. We have become robots who destroy our social skills so our PI can get more funding.
    Obviously phd is not regular 9-to-5 job, but it should not be just labor. Back in the day, universities graduated scientist and independent researcher, whereas today, we graduate phds. The culture of turning out mass chemists to satisfy school needs, PI grants and some statistics is killing the field. It is sad to see so many fellow coworkers graduate without having a lot more insight or ideas about chemistry than myself (3rd year synthetic chem). So many are pushed to the limits to just work and produce results that they neglect the more important aspects of graduate school, the intellectual part.

    If you all keep up with literature, it’s obvious to see that so much “crap” comes out that does not add any value to our knowledge of chemistry; just adds to vast information we produced. More and more research is repetitive or ligand screening. Many new hot papers are just optimization of old chemistry that is sold as the newest greatest thing in the world.

    You can work all you want, but the Chinese will outwork you and will do it for a lot less money. On top of that, all the research and RD we are sending over there will soon allow them out think us.

  61. I must say that reading these comments only confirms Kern's conclusion. I will mention first that Kern comes off as a true ass-monkey, but I think he does raise an important point. All of the (very valid) arguments of warm bodies in lab not equaling productivity and life/lab balance aside, it seems that many of the commenters here view the work that do as just that: work. I think the take-away point from Kern's essay is that many of us scientists spend too much time sulking in the doldrums of trouble-shooting a shitty assay or pimping ourselves and first-born for funding that we forget the reason we are in science in the first place: the thrill of discovery. Hopefully the passion, or at the very least the egocentric drive to prove yourself better than your competitor, makes it's way back into science.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20