Saturday, December 09, 2006

Grad-Time Continuum

How much grad students 'should' work (other than the 20 hours of teaching/research on which their salary is based), is one of those unanswerable questions that varies with the student and the research and whether the equipment gods are happy and so on. I've known and advised grad students who worked 9-5 (or 8-6), had a life/family, and did quite well. This is very rare; these people are super-efficient and have well-defined projects that don't rely on balky equipment and less efficient co-workers. Much more common are research projects that require some (to a lot) of night/weekend time. There are also many examples of students who tried to work 9-5, weren't super-efficient, and who flamed out because of their lack of progress with research.

With the exception of one of my current students, I work more hours than any of the others, and (with one other exception) this is OK with me. I have one student who works an insane amount because he wants to, but (with the one other exception) my other students have more of a balance between time at the department and time off campus. They are always telling me about concerts or crazy parties they went to, or a weekend trip they took, or a hike/bike-ride they went on, or a non-science book that they read, and I like hearing about their other interests. They are doing interesting and productive research and they know I am satisfied/happy with their work.

As for the one who isn't currently working much or well, we have an appointment to discuss the situation next week: is it a time-management problem, family/health etc. problem, lack of interest, lack of something else? I can deal with some of those in terms of adjusting the student's research program and/or my expectations. If it's a lack of interest or motivation, I want to know sooner rather than later.


Anonymous said...

I went through periods of low motivation as a grad student, but I still kept on working by basically forcing myself to do things around the lab. I would say about 60 hour weeks plus some reading/emails on the weekends at late nights is pretty typical for myself and other similarly self-driven students. We had a student in our lab that sometimes would fall asleep in the lab, in the morning we would sometimes find him sleeping in the chair next to his computer.

He is better in that sense now that he is married.

I do believe that being successful (at anything really) requires being a little obsessive about it. It's good thing as long as it's under control. At times I think my obsession with work is beyond my control though :)

However, it really irritates me that some students think they can get away with 40 hours a week (or less). Why enter a grad school at all then?

I suspect that some people go for PhD simply because they haven't figured out what to do after their bachelors. They are so used to taking classes for 11+4=15 years, that they feel the need to keep "learning". Which may be a good thing, but in the end it's research productivity, not book knowledge that counts.

What irritates me is that laziness of some students has a tremendous effect on other's morale. Other students may not be willing to work extra hours when they see that theyr peer gets away with strolling into the lab at noon and leaving at 4PM.

I am not sure what needs to be done, but something has to be done if one or several students are slacking off, while others are working hard.

I mentioned in another post comments, we have this super-lazy student who when confronted constantly comes up with the most ridiculous excuses, that somehow satisfy our PI. Or maybe the professor PI is afraid to be too tough with this student. As a postdoc I cannot do much - I am not the one paying the salary, but this student's laziness means I have to pick up the slack myself, and even then our common project suffers. The student joined our group about a year and a half ago, and our PI still thinks the student will need adjusting. I invested so much time into training the student, and since my postdoc thing is about to end, it was a giant waste of my time.

Last week we had a meeting where the student in question got up in the middle of it and left, without saying anything, without coming to lab for the next two days (Thursday and Friday, never mind the weekend!). I send some emails asking about what happened, but no response. I am sure we'll be treated to some sobbing melodramatic story next week. Meanwhile others have to pick up the slack.

Angie said...

I'm a first year grad student. I came in on a fellowship, and without an advisor (dangerous? maybe) or project. In my field, next to no one has a lab. As far as I can tell, my school is very laid back, because there's a lot of emphasis put on having a life, and people are constantly telling me (and the other first years) not to worry so much about studying and definitely not to expect to do research before next summer. When I got here, I felt very directionless (I still do) by my lack of project and advisor, but I was strongly advised by people in the department not to rush into anything... at all. Or worry about my grades. Really just to go have fun. But I get conflicting vibes from various professors... the department chair thought I was right on track with my lack of progress even looking for a project, while the graduate advisor seems to think I should be much farther along than I am.

So, you're recent posts are making me feel a mixture of the guilt/lack of direction that is just below my surface anyway, and also confusion because I don't think my department works like anyone here is describing.

Maybe I suffer from some combination of not knowing what to do besides grad school, and also being discouraged by other students' low productivity (the expectations here seem lower than I expected)... but I at least get the impression that it's fairly normal for people here to work only 40 hours a week, and do fine... and have a whole life too... is that really wrong?? or impossible?? Maybe it's my perception that's wrong, who knows...

Female Science Professor said...

Angie, that sounds very different. If you're not funded on a particular advisor's grant for a particular project, the expectations might be different. As to whether you should be working 'more', that also depends on what you want to do with your degree.

Unknown said...

Angie, I've gone through an orientation period of about 15 months and at the time, I was constantly worrying about not keeping up. I still do, sometimes. However, the important thing is finding a good advisor and work that you actually like so that you can be productive for the rest of the time. You don't have to be "obsessive" to make it. While that helps with certain topics, there are other things that require a broader range of knowledge.

Anyway, the fact that we're sitting here on a Saturday/Sunday does already give it away, doesn't it? ;-) That said, every reader of PhDComics knows that time in the lab is not necessarily time spent working *cough*.

In general, I think the number of hours doesn't really say that much. I divide my time between software devel, TAing, advising undergrads students working for our group, preparing exercises for the TA job, lit research, departmental/group meetings and then, at the end, some genuine research. Exactly how much time is spent on each part varies widely over time.

Micro Mel said...

I can't understand the 9-5 grad student schedule or the 40 hours a week. Research isn't 9-5, at least the kind that I was doing. My schedule depended on when the cells were ready. Some weeks were 40 hours, others were 60 hours.

There were numerous occasions where my time-sensitive experiments kept me until 3am. I've even spent the night in the lab a few times, sleeping on my office desk in between the 2 hour time points.

Now don't get me wrong-- I'm not complaining about my random schedule. I'm a night owl at heart (hence the timing of this post).

There are some researchers who can fit their science in a "normal" work day. Others, like me, who are single with no kids, are the scientists who don't mind the weird hours. We're the type who look at the clock to see when our PCR or agarose gel is finished, not the type to count down the minutes until the clock strikes 5pm.

I think the key to time well spent in the lab is to tweak a research project depending on the type of researcher. If that's not an option, set expectations: Make the student provide you a research calendar describing their research plan for the week. I found this to be helpful in time management. As a follow-up for you, have your students send you a weekly update on their accomplished research, the outcome of that research, followed with their next steps and predicted results.

My point is, make your students write about their science more. The more they think about it, the better off they will be.

Anonymous said...

Monday morning and the grant is done and shipped off hooray! I have just revisited this site and realized I should clarify a few things, if that's not bad etiquette. First, most of my students are not clueless, just one or two of them have had the "I'm a poorly paid employee and I'm going to work (or not) accordingly" attitude. Most of my students are great. Didn't mean to tar them all with the same brush. Second, I did bring up the 20 hours a week thing because technically, students on RAs are supposed to do my research or whatever for me for 20 hours a week. However, nobody I know actually does this to the students. Instead, they work on research for that 20 hours that will get them papers and a dissertation. Sometimes the work is pretty separate from my own area, in fact. And as I mentioned, when I was an RA my advisor actually did make me work for him, usually I filed papers or inventoried samples or did some other busy work like that: once or twice I watched his kids, and once I actually got sent to pick up dry cleaning. Nobody does this any more, I think. So in fact, an RA can devote all that time to their own research. However, I didn't mean to imply that students should or do only work 20 hours a week: they should be working as much as it takes to be productive on their research. In the end, the student should remember that they are working for themselves as much as for their advisor: they will end up with papers, experiences, and of course a degree, that will help them get a job in the future. At it's best, the system is a 'win-win', and not exploitative. But students should remember that they are not the only ones making sacrifices. I liked what someone said in an earlier post, during their later years, good students are worth much more than their stipends, but in the early years they are holes we pour money down... or something like that (I think the original was much more elegant!). Most faculty are decent and most students are not lazy: but it helps to know just what each is expecting and getting from the relationship.

Anonymous said...

One of the biggest advantages to grad school and academia in general is the flexibility. Yes, you work a LOT. And yes many of those days are nearly 24 hours if you are doing lab work. However, you also have the complete freedom to take off Thursday, for example, and go Christmas shopping. I didn't realize what a great gift that was until I left for industry. It doesn't justify the academic wages, but it really is a nice benefit at times.

Anonymous said...

No, we don't get to take off Thursday. My boss told me only ten days off per year and you're here on all work days at least. Better come in on the weekends too.

In our field, it's not uncommon for students to sign 'contracts' that they will work six days a week and will only take ten days off per year. I find the signed contract thing a bit odious though.

An example of that can be found at the following link. You have to scroll down to the middle of the page to see it. It's the part that's in English.

And if you're worried about Carreira's reputation, then don't be. Everybody who applies to his group knows about "the letter".

Anonymous said...

I am a grad student on an non-university fellowship, finished with coursework (I TA'd for one year, as required by my department). I do most of my research at an outside lab and spend very little time at the University. As a result, I feel like I should be at work during the hours the staff work. If I'm sick or late, I call in. I often work much later than the others, but not always. I feel like I am obligated to work a base of 40 hours/week but can take a couple weeks vacation throughout the year. Usually, when I take extra time off, I make an effort to make it up on weekends or nights. My schedule seems to fluxuate based on what I'm doing. I usually work more hours when I'm at the bench. When I'm crunching data, I work 40 minus some web surfing time. I just can't seem to sit still more than that. My advisor doesn't seem to care when I work, but we talk about our work very frequently (becuase we both get really excited about the data), so she knows what's up.

Anyway, I feel like there is greater accountability for my time than the students who work mostly at the University and that makes me more productive. They come and go at strange times and some work at home for days. Maybe they are getting lots done at home. Or maybe not.

Regarding earlier posts about students, I feel like I am something in between a student and an employee. When I describe my situation to lay people, I call it an apprenticeship. I've heard some people say grad students need low pay to motivate them to finish. I think this is a lousy attitude, but probably true for some people. I feel like I am very underpaid, but I knew the deal going in and grad school is a privilege -- to have the freedom to pursue one's interests is a luxury. Still, I'm really looking forward to regular pay after this.

Anonymous said...

I think Anonymous works in a horrendous hellhole. No work environment should be like that, and no co-worker should have the kinds of expectations about her/his fellow co-workers that Anonymous seems to have. If you can't take a day off to go xmas shopping then something is really really wrong. Even in industry people leave early from work and go shopping. I know; I was there and saw it done all the time.

I worked in Germany at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg for 2.5 years, and let me tell you, German graduate students and postdocs do not work anything like the crazy hours that American students/postdocs do. They have normal lives. They don't work on the weekends. They are rarely there after about 6 p.m. When I stayed late or came in on the weekend the place was a ghost town. I was considered an oddball, a high pressure American who didn't know how to live. My colleagues all managed to do good work and publish papers and get their degrees.

It's a question of how much of your life you are willing to sacrifice to the notion that you HAVE to work 80 hour weeks in order to be a "real" scientist. This idea that if you don't do it, "they" will be doing it and will take away "your" results. There's enough science in the world for everyone. Turning it into some ridiculous competition is what hurts people and makes it so difficult for people to manage careers and lives simultaneously.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that some of you can't understand the 9-5 grad student. Frankly, I can't understand why some of you might expect people to pull 12 hour days. It is this mentality that is causing Americans to avoid science altogether. The majority of "healthy" and "well-adjusted" people actuallly want a life. HELLO. This same unhealthy view pervades the medical field. That is, in expecting physicians to pull all nighters. Ummm, why not hire more physicians then? Why not pay grad students or postdocs more if you actually want them to work more? As a grad student I worked 9-5 and came out with 6 manuscripts in high quality journals. Expecting people to do a good job is one thing. Expecting them to forgo a balanced life is another. Maybe some of you could stand a bit more socializing.

Anonymous said...

I am a third year graduate student and I have worked as a research technician for 4 years before getting into graduate school. I have been through 2 labs, and I have also observed labs around me......and I do not ever recall seeing students work more than 50 to 55 hours a week.What I fail to understand is...why is it such a competition among graduate students as far number of hours spent working in the lab is concerned. As a third year student, I have 2 second author publications, have done 2 series of experiments for the PI's collaborators, and am writing my very own first author paper already, and yet there are times when I am done at 5:00 pm. Ofcourse sometimes I put in 40 hrs a week, and sometimes much much more than that...I have had my share of odd hours, and all nighters, but it really is not a rule. The notion that graduate students must live in the lab is ridiculous. Personally I fail to understand, why it still takes 90% of the graduate student population (who claim to work insane amount of hours in the lab), 5 years to graduate. Should'nt they be done in 3 or 4 years??? No wonder then, in recent years, the drop out rate has gone up (atleast this has been my observation, but I am willing to be proved wrong)....students must not be judged on how many hours they work....they must be judged more on how productive they are and how well their thought processes evolve. There is no point in spending 5 years pursuing a Ph.D and being paid to get the degree, but not putting it to good use, on account of the burn out syndrome.