The doctorate’s dilemma

When people ask me what I did this summer, I tell them that, among other things, I worked in a cognitive neuroscience lab. After an appreciative pause, I am quick to explain: “it’s not as cool as it sounds, believe me.”

This summer I learned that I don’t want to be a scientist. And for someone who has always had some plans do some science PhD, that’s a pretty big deal. As many students in their final year at university will appreciate, the decisions we’re facing aren’t just about what we want to do; they’re about how we want to live. For me, the life of a scientist just doesn’t seem like a good fit anymore.

For a taste of that life, look no further than last month’s issue of the science mothership journal Nature. The issue featured a series of pieces on “24/7 lab” culture — a phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent in scientific research. It’s a culture where the expectation of working nine to five will get you laughed out of the room. Evenings, weekends, and holidays are all fair game for a long haul in the lab. The rationale is simple: the more hours you can work, the more grants you can apply for, and the more articles you can publish.
The sheer volume of work isn’t simply about attaining post-human productivity. In science, working hard is sexy. Of course, hard work is applauded in other fields, but scientists take it to the extreme.

Take Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, a neurosurgeon in the US who’s notorious for pulling 140-hour workweeks. He enforces the same hardcore work ethic in his grad students, and he also happened to publish 113 articles in the past six years. Scientists of this breed pride themselves in driving themselves inhumanly hard without an ounce of a break. They’re feared, and enormously respected.

Yet for the kind of person who has interests, or friends, outside of science, the 24/7 lab culture spells-out a pretty certain road to burnout. In my brief stint at the cognitive neuroscience lab this summer, I became accustomed to the 12-hour workday. I lived on cafeteria sandwiches, becoming completely numb to the passage of time and study participants. When I wasn’t pitying myself on the bus-ride to work, I was looking forward to my favourite part of the day: the time to sleep, before another day of research would dawn.

But I don’t want to paint an unnecessarily bleak picture of science. Thankfully, not all scientists subscribe to the cult of workaholism, and not all labs will drive you to those extremes. Yet, for the soon-to-be graduate who’s on the brink of a research career, your work life is something to consider seriously. The trouble is that as competition increases for limited research funding, the chances of succeeding without putting in the extra hours are growing increasingly slim. If you want to be ambitious — get published, earn grants, and do all the things that the culture of science has ever taught us to want — you have to make sacrifices.

But are the sacrifices worth it? On a personal level, it means throwing away any naive notions of work-life balance, and recalibrating your biological rhythms to the pulse of the grant cycle. Some people have the stomach for it, others don’t.

Still, there’s more at stake. It’s not just a question of whether the 24/7 work ethic is good for the scientists; it’s worth it to ask whether this culture is even good for science. What are the chances of generating creative, penetrating research questions, when you haven’t had more than ten minutes to yourself, apart from sleep? What is the likelihood that you’ll commit an error in analyzing data, when you’ve been awake for the past 20 hours? What can your science be worth if it has mistakes in it?

As Julie Overbaugh argues in her Nature commentary, science needs to create space for both kinds of researchers — the hardcore workaholics who focus all their energy on research, and the original thinkers who seek a better work-life balance, and drive new ideas.
So let me qualify my first assertion: This summer I learned that I don’t want to be a scientist, and a scientist only. Like most people in their twenties, I want to pursue other interests outside of laboratory. I want to keep up my relationships with friends and family. I want to have the space to generate my own ideas. But by the looks of the current scientific landscape, that kind of balance seems near impossible if you want to make your mark.

I’m not afraid of hard work, and have put in my fair share of 18-hour days-with gusto. But I’m not willing to put the rest of my life on hold while I complete a PhD that will get me somewhere I’m told is amazing. In the end, nothing is worth it if I don’t find some value in the process of doing it.

In a perfect world, of course, we’d all be able to be ambitious, award-winning scientists, who have time for both the grunt work and the deeper questions. Until that world is created, the doctorate’s dilemma is simple. Being able to say “I was at the lab til 10 p.m. last night” may give you that wonderful sense of self-pitying pride, and even a few publications under your belt before graduation. But if you’re more inclined to find some joy in what you do, it might be wiser to take the scenic route.

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