One of my colleagues is currently immersed in a discussion with his graduate students about how much they should work on their research. This is of course a complex subject that dissatisfied faculty and tired students could discuss endlessly and unpleasantly.
I want to mention today just one aspect of the issue: ignoring for now all the other complexities of this topic, can/should a grad student scale their efforts depending on their career goal?
For example: One of my colleague's Ph.D. students maintains that he doesn't have to work as hard as some other students because his career goal is to get a faculty position at a small liberal arts college, not a research-intensive job at a university.
My colleague would be satisfied if this student worked a 40 hour week (i.e. much less than that of students with an intense research focus, but a reasonable amount) if the student used that time well; at present, the student works < size="3">. Note that specifying the number of hours worked is actually kind of meaningless. I've had students who were physically present in the department/lab for >> 40 hours/week and got nothing done, and other students who were extremely efficient and made excellent progress on their research during weekday daytime hours.
I mention this detail so that no one assumes that my colleagues is expecting this student to work every night and weekend (though he'd probably be fine with that). In this specific incident, the issue is that the student wants to work at a very leisurely pace because he thinks that is in line with his personal career goals, and, absent any specific agreement with the advisor that this schedule is acceptable owing to family/health/etc. considerations, I hope we can all agree that this is not OK.
My colleague is supporting the student on a grant. This doesn't mean that the student has to work 24/7 just because his salary, tuition, and benefits are being paid by his advisor's grant, but aside from the general issues about doing the work you are paid to do, there are additional questions and concerns that arise when a grant-funded student decides, one year into a project, to work at a leisurely pace (using this particular case as an example):
1. The grant would cover the academic career of a student working an efficient 40-hour workweek for several years but that will run out before a student working an inefficient and/or < 40-hour workweek completes the dissertation research. It's not as simple as saying "OK, well too bad for you" when the support runs out because presumably the research project has specific goals that should be accomplished if at all possible in the time frame of the grant. The student seems to think that the major factor controlling how much and how hard he works is his personal career goal, but he is funded to do a project that has a finite time frame. And hence point 2:
2. The leisure-track student is part of a research group. Each student and research scientist works on their own project, but as in many research groups, the projects are somewhat interconnected and the progress and success of each person and project affects the others. Unusually slow progress (by choice, not owing to an unpredicted and unavoidable obstacle) on a grant-funded project may negatively impact others.
Of course research is not so predictable that as long as you clock in your hours each week, you will get from point A to point B and write your papers and be done. It is not so simple (or boring), but in general, if you do work hard and think about what you are doing, you will get a result, even if it's not what you expected. Some people and projects need more time than others, and, within certain limits (i.e. the grant duration +/- a year or two), that's fine.
I think the particular student in question, if he ever finishes his Ph.D. and is fortunate enough to get the job he most desires, will be in for a shock when he finds out how hard professors at teaching-focused institutions work. This issue has been raised with him, but he went to a small college and thinks he knows well what his professors' jobs were like. Cushy! Summers off! Smart and adoring students!
There are differences in the experiences and lifestyles of professors at different types of educational institutions, but we all get our Ph.D.'s at research institutions and there are not separate degrees for those whose passion is for teaching and for those who want a significant research component in their job as a professor at a 4-year college or university. One can argue about whether that is a good thing or not, but I'm not going to today.
This is not to say that everyone has to work 80 hour weeks in grad school no matter what their personal situation and career goals, but when supported on a grant in the current system, you are committed to maintaining a certain level of productivity (loosely defined to include time spent thinking, pondering, wondering, and being constructively confused, not just cranking out data and papers) no matter what your post-Ph.D. career goal.
Position statement: I think that grad students can to some extent scale their efforts to their career goals if they so desire, but that being in a Ph.D. program and being paid by a grant to work a certain amount obligates one to put in a certain amount of effort and to make progress at a reasonable rate. Ideally, the definition of 'reasonable' can be mutually agreed upon by advisor and student (and this is why my colleague is currently having discussions with his student, to reach just such an agreement).
This post was of course written from the point of view of a PI on grants in the current system. In tomorrow's post: musings about the challenges of making the academic science/research culture (including aspects involving grants) more life-friendly (for lack of a better term).
2 years ago