Monday, October 20, 2008

Think Work

Not long ago on a Monday, a colleague said to a group of his graduate students something like "I was thinking about this [research project] over the weekend, and had an idea about that problem we were discussing last week." A first year PhD student said, amazed "You work on weekends?".

Aside from the issue of whether it was wise of the PhD student to admit to his advisor that he doesn't even think about his research on weekends (the advisor's interpretation of the question, owing to the emphasis on the word work) or to imply that he is surprised that his advisor thinks about research on weekends (another possible interpretation, if the word you was the intended emphasis): Is thinking working?

Of course thinking is an important part of research, and research is our work, so thinking is working in that respect. I could be very wrong, but I think most people who work by choice in a research environment think about their research on weekends. Even if I spent an entire weekend (or week) doing nothing but recreational activities with my family and cats, it is not possible for me to not think about my research at all.

That doesn't mean I don't know how to 'leave work at the office' in some respects. I have no interest in discussing office politics at the dinner table, for example, and I certainly don't spend every waking hour thinking about work. But I can't imagine not thinking at all about my work (research, teaching, some of the more interesting aspects of professional service) outside of normal working hours, and I can't imagine not wanting to think about these things (i.e. I can't imagine wanting to not think about work).

If you're curious about something and are trying to figure something out, you think about it. That doesn't (necessarily) mean that you are an obsessed monomaniac workaholic, nor is your only other option to be a work-brain-turned-off-when-not-at-work person. I think that being so interested in your work that you want to think about it even when you don't 'have' to is simply a characteristic of someone who enjoys their work.

My response to the amazed student's question would have been similar to my colleague's: Even if I wanted to stop thinking about my work, I couldn't. And even if I could stop, I wouldn't want to.

Someone can get a PhD in Science without working (and thinking about) research 24/7, and you don't even have to feel that your PhD research is absolutely the most fascinating thing in the universe, but I would hope that there would be something about the subject that was interesting enough to think about now and then on the weekend.

26 comments:

cmb said...

Okay, I'm not even in a super high pressure field and I basically assume that, as I'm getting a PhD into this stuff, free time on the weekend=time to obsess about research questions in a leisurely manner...

Really weird that that student seems to think academics have 9-5 jobs.

Always encouraged by your posts btw--thanks for writing them!

Alex said...

And so we come to the difference between you experimental types and us theoretical types: When I'm lying on the couch half paying attention to the DVD on the tube while manipulating solutions to an equation in my head, I am in fact working!

I suppose experimentalists could also do their work on the couch, but chemical stains and laser burns are bad for the upholstery, and vacuum pumps and sonicators might scare the cats.

David Moles said...

From my friends with PhDs I get the impression that if your "day job" isn't also your primary hobby -- or if you can't convincingly pretend it is -- then, in the long run, academia probably isn't the place for you. As a first-year grad student, your colleague's interlocutor may not have cottoned on to this yet.

Beth J said...

I am a first year PhD student. Previously I had worked as an RA and disliked thinking about research out of work hours, mostly because it was in a field of research that bored me to tears. Within a couple of months of starting my PhD, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed thinking about my research. New ideas would just pop into my head at the most odd times. Although I have many hobbies and interests outside of my research, I am starting to now fully appreciate how my supervisors can work, or at least think about work, on the weekends. It's creative and exciting to be questioning and understanding the world around me and it doesn't *feel* like work. I think also it's because it's my own work now and not someone else's (unlike when I was an RA) that makes my mind spontaneously "work" out of hours.

Steve said...

I can honestly say, after starting my PhD less than a month ago, research is all I can think about. Maybe it is a craving for data. Last night I got very little sleep, having woke myself up in the middle of the night and convinced myself I had 'work to do'. Argh. :S

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This leads to the interesting--at least, it is to government and academic administrative functionaries--question of what percent effort a scientist expends when thinking about her research while eating, showering, playing water polo, mowing the lawn, masturbating, etc.

grad student said...

wow, are there really grad students or professors who DON'T work on weekends (if not all, at least some)?!? It's an unbroken block of time, something that is rare in the week...at least once you're working for your fellowship money I guess. Perhaps this is a first year thing?

I carry a notebook and pen everywhere these days because I'll think of something at odd times. Even if I'm not working at the time (heck, I seem to come up with ideas in the shower fairly often...).

Anonymous said...

In music school, a great piece of advice: "Some of the most important practicing happens outside the practice room".

Call it digestion, consolidation, rumination, back-burnering ... but this is how my mind works. I need, I HAVE to, get deeply involved in other tasks (for me this is rock climbing, which is indeed mentally consuming) for my mind to do its best work.

Then at random times - plenty on weekends, in the shower, on a belay ledge, waking up in the morning, wandering down a trail - my mind lets loose with its work.

So yeah, research is a full time occupation for my mind.

Global Girl said...

To grad student:

I am a fifth-year PhD student, and I have a policy of not working on weekends. I don't buy the 'you're not serious unless you work nights and weekends' myth - everyone I know who does this procrastrinates so immensely, their efficiency is in the gutter, and it's a very poor use of their time. To work hard, you have to rest completely.

At the risk of being too corporate, I have found 'The Power of Full Engagement' (http://www.amazon.com/Power-Full-Engagement-Managing-Performance/dp/0743226747) very helpful. But then again, I don't want to stay in academia either. But I also know not to let my advisor in on that I have a different view of efficiency, work time and rest.

Ms.PhD said...

Funny timing on this post.

I woke up this morning, in that bleary-alarm-about-to-go-off hour, and had a major realization about my project. Even if I consciously need a break from my research, subconsciously, I never really want one.

@global_girl, I think whether weekend work should be required or expected, or not, depends on the field.

In my field, coming in for 2 hours on the weekend can save you several days the next week, or even more time, so it becomes less an issue of whether you feel like coming in, than how long you want your project to take.

If I ever have my own lab, I will make that clear to my students up front and try only to take students who genuinely get it that they wouldn't just be wasting their own time in grad school, but they'd be wasting my time, too. But I agree with you that working constantly isn't necessarily better than taking weekends off.

I've seen PIs who make their students sign a contract agreeing to work X# of hours per week (>>40 hours in those cases), and I've seen PIs who don't tell their technicians weekend work is required and overtime is not paid until AFTER they've accepted the position.

But the culture of science is changing. Fewer people are willing to work around the clock for no pay and no job security. Science isn't just a hobby for rich white kids anymore, but that also means the new generation expects it to be more like a real job.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Science is involving and many times you keep on thinking about your scientific problem even if you are not at your office. And this is nice and fine. But science is not the only work in this world which has this characteristics. Ask any businessman who runs his own business, any lawyer, any artist who is involved in his work. But at the same time, the job security and pay is much poor for students/post-docs in science that they can be fully secure and just enjoy the pleasure of science. This must be kept in mind by any PI who enjoys better security and pay and can have leisure of thinking science in their free time. Students /post-docs are often pushed to work like crazy and required to spend evenings / weekends in the lab and then to expect that they will think about science when they are not inside the lab is too much. My PI sent me a complain mail that I am having leisure time in home when I was full 9 month pregnant and expecting my baby any time. This is insane.

Anonymous said...

I've actually (really!) dreamed a solution to an analysis problem. Usually, of course, those dreams turn out to be fantastical creations that fail. But, in one case, I had a dream about something tricky that wasn't quite working that turned out to be the right solution.

Pagan Topologist said...

Global Girl, I very much suspect that your attitude is more prevalent among good scientists than among great ones. The people who seem to be procrastinating probably aren't. Einstein, Marie Curie, Pauling, etc, were more like the person who, even while resting has important ideas, than like the person who is either "on" or "off" and the two states do not mix. There may be exceptions, but I don't know of any.

And, experimentalists are just as likely to get ideas about how to do a better experiment while not "working" as theoreticians are to get new ideas.

Cloud said...

I am a scientist working in industry. I work just a little more than 40 hours most weeks. I don't do experiments anymore, but my hours were roughly the same even when I did still do research. Even when I was in academia, I didn't spend insane hours in the lab. I think some people are more efficient if they aren't in the lab long hours, while others do better if they spend the long hours in the lab. It is not a one size fits all sort of thing.

However, I do read work related things on the weekend, and I don't think I could stop myself from thinking about interesting problems from work at odd hours. I actually took a 4 month leave of absence once, and it took several weeks before I no longer thought about work at all.

And to the anonymous person whose adviser thinks that being 9 months pregnant is "leisure time"- I'm so sorry. I hope you have better luck with your next adviser. It is hard to appreciate how hard it is to be 9 months pregnant until you've been there. However, at least in industry, the HR department can try to keep people like your adviser in check!

usagibrian said...

I've felt rather overwhelmed by the start of school this Fall for the first time in ages. It took a while but I finally realized, my pool shut down for a major renovation in September, so I had to substitute other exercise for the last six weeks. And I lost the 40 minutes three times a week plowing rhythmically through moderately warm water, consciously breathing that I used to let my mind wander over problems hanging around from the office. I'm one of those people who needs that sort of off-cycle processing to work through things (I didn't realize exactly how much I'd missed it until the quarter start crunch was over).

lusenok said...

>Pagan Topologist

For me it seems like the less I work the more I do.
The most important insight of this year happened to me when I was at home recovering from illness after 3 or 4 days away from work.
On the other hand, when I tried to work on weekends it inevitably ended up with some fabulous screw-ups - both in experiments and in data treatment.
Working long hours cranking out "results" makes me lose perspective. It is better to stop and think sometimes.

I learned to appreciate the power of a well rested mind.

grad student said...

To global girl and ms.phd:

I definitely think that taking time to recharge is critical. I've learned that by nearly burning myself out working 7 days a week. But, at least in my field (science), I don't think it's feasible to never work on the weekends either; there are certain times when that's just not going to work (grant due, deadlines, etc). it's not about being taken seriously, it's about getting stuff done. Really, who's going to take you seriously no matter how much time you put in if the product isn't good?

I can't imagine being required to work a certain number of hours or days. I certainly work more than 40 hours a week. How much I'm getting done is a much better measure than filling some time quota.

global girl, I've added that book you mentioned to my reading list...sounds useful.

Anonymous said...

just to add after anon #11, that I got that mail from my PI exactly on my due date when all I could think was why labor is not starting and if I will manage to deliver my baby safely. I was so shocked with this unexpected mail, that it caused enormous stress, and later I had to be induced and end up with c-section. And all these after I worked hard and didn't took any single day off during my whole pregnancy knowing that I will need time off later. If only he would have shown some support during that time, I am sure I would feel obliged all my life. I am in science because I love it, but this kind of events can derail even the most dedicated person.

Female Science Professor said...

I hope everyone realizes that this post was not about how many hours we work, and whether we 'work' (sensu lato) weekends/nights/while in labor. The post was about whether we think (by choice) about research outside of typical working hour.

Doctor Pion said...

Outside the typical working hour is the only time you can actually think, to free the mind, to get new ideas. A long morning shower will often open up new insights. I've even seen problems solved or experiments designed in a bar.

I mean, what could be more interesting to think about than the thing you find most interesting? Why would you be working on a PhD if you didn't find it interesting enough to think about your subject? To get that high-paying job?

Hint: the person who is actually going to get that great faculty job is thinking up new ideas over the weekend.

Anonymous said...

I think about different aspects of my research alot and do lots of accidental problemsolving at odd times including the weekends. I find walking and exercising especially productive times for solutions popping into my head. I suppose basically, (1) my research is extremely interesting to me and (2) I enjoy problem solving.

On the other hand, a mathematician friend said to me once he thought mathematicians were generally a grumpy bunch because they spent 95% of their time feeling frustrated because they were trying unsuccessfully to solve problems (and the other 5% euphorically happy).

On the topic of weekend work, I agree with global girl, quality thinking time (or work time) is far more important than quantity, and that is what the power of full engagement is all about. As I have a number of children, I avoid *working* on weekends whenever possible, but do my best to ensure my weekly work time is as productive as I can make it.

Anonymous said...

I like the fact that you tell openly, but in a not-harmful-way.
Enjoyable stories. I just saw you had published some of the posts from your blog! Your male colleagues should read them ;-)

Candid Engineer said...

When I was just beginning as a first year grad student, I don't know if it would have occurred to me to think about my research on the weekends. I wasn't deeply involved in the research at that point, and I barely understood the first thing about getting a Ph.D. I'm sure this student you speak of will feel differently in a year or two.

flit said...

I'd much rather be thinking about - or working - on my research on the weekends than doing the ...umm... ~stuff~ I'm doing.

Only a 1/4 of the way through my MA and I'm so fed up with reading reams and reams of academic journals we may or may not even touch on! Whoever said that in grad school we'd get to actually work on and learn stuff we were interested in lied ...at least so far.

I'm keeping up ... and doing fine...but my own research and writing and life is lost beneath the stacks of ~stuff~

(Just once, i wish I could type that stOOpid word verification code right the first time! LOL)

Anonymous said...

Well I'm a 6th year PhD student and I spend a couple evenings a week and most weekends in the lab working so "my time off" is spent thinking about work. But, I know your point was in during our real leisure time, do we think about our 'work.' I would say on a day to day basis it varies. Many times I come home and in the shower, cooking, or taking a walk I'm working out kinks in my research papers, etc. If I go away it usually takes me a couple of days to not think about my stuff at the lab. The exception is when I visit family, I'm usually so wrapped up in the moment I don't think about my stuff very much.

Global Girl said...

On the topic of simply thinking about work on weekends, I no longer think about my research unless I have decided that I'm working. That is one key way in which I know that what I am doing now no longer holds any passion for me - instead, I think about business strategy when reading the paper, or throughout the day, or about my consulting side job on the weekends. I do not think scientists are the only people who think of their work outside working hours, as has already been suggested. I think that's something you do when you're passionate about your work in general.