Thursday, March 20, 2008


Today a male colleague told me that he wished more women grad students had 'monomania' when it came to research/Science. What a thing to wish for.

This conversation made me wonder whether I was a monomaniac in grad school. I don't think I was, but it was a long time ago and I am not necessarily able to judge this myself. There have always been other things that are important to me in addition to my research, so I would be surprised if I was ever a monomaniac, sensu stricto.

You can work hard and be intensely interested in your research without being a monomaniac. I certainly don't expect monomaniacity (monomaniacness?) from my own students. Surely having a balanced life in grad school is a healthier way to be and better preparation for a happy life after grad school.

I've said it before many times: It's not the women who should change, it's the culture. No one should have to be a monomaniac to succeed. In my gloomier moments, I think that Academia won't change significantly until it becomes more diverse, but it won't become more diverse until it changes significantly, but it can't change until it becomes more diverse, and so on.

In a related conversation with the same colleague, he expressed some concern on my behalf today. I recently put together a collection of images that I created and that I hope will help students in some of my intermediate level courses. The image collection is available free in electronic form, but I also put the collection together in a visually stunning (well, aesthetically pleasing, anyway) form that can be printed inexpensively from a self-publishing site if anyone wants to have the collection in the form of a glossy printed book.

My colleague was concerned that if students went to this book publishing site to get the science book, they would see some non-scientific things I have on the same site. He thought I should have used different sites for my non-science and science writing. (Or maybe I should just write everything anonymously?)

It's not as if my non-science writing is embarrassing, or, at least, I don't think so.. (Maybe my colleague thinks so, though. Hmm). It's not as if I wrote obscene poems or thinly veiled descriptions of odious colleagues (the latter I do here, in my blog). Mostly it's just stories I wrote for my daughter. It didn't even occur to me to care if my students saw these stories. It's fine with me if they do, and then they will surely know that I am not a monomaniac.


Karen James said...

Dear FSP, you are right and your 'odious' colleague is W. R. O. N. G. While for some (both men and women in my experience), monomania comes naturally, it should not be considered the sole path to a successful career in science. Both styles (monomania and balanced work-life) can work. The point is to train and enable *all* talented scientists the opportunity to do and publish their work, whether it is done one day per week or 100+ hours per week. By proposing that we select only for monomaniacs, your colleague is unwittingly promulgating the weaknesses that plague our national science strategy. I'm sure your colleague has no idea that by not hiding your "non science" endeavours from your students, you are probably attracting more interest in science from them not less. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

The fact that higher-functioning autism is getting greater acceptance in society means a smaller percentage will end up in academia. Thus, the number of monomanic academics will surely decline. :)

Natalie said...

My adviser in grad school told me that I would never be a good professor because I wasn't good at focussing on just one thing and I would get bored. Luckily I talked to another professor (who enjoyed teaching more than my adviser) and he told me the exact opposite. But it was very disheartening being told I didn't have the "proper focus" for grad school.

Ianqui said...

Contrast your post with this article in today's NY Times. Your colleague would presumably be horrified.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right in highlighting this as an issue. It resonates for me personally: if I was a monomaniac about my research, like I see several of my (male) colleagues do, then I'd be doing much better in my career. As it is, I feel that my wide variety of interests is damaging to my career. It shouldn't be, but it is. It seems like it's related to the workload issue: if it was possible to get an academic job done in a 40-hour work week then it wouldn't matter, but it isn't and it does.

I'm not sure whether monomania is a gender issue. I think it might be. As well as male academic monomaniacs I can think of several non-monomaniacs, but I can't think of any female academic monomaniacs.

abyss said...

Something I have learned from reading your blog is that, after working with women scientists for 25 years, I had no idea that they perceive *everything* in terms of gender. Someone insults you, must be sexist. Seems more likely the person was an asshole. I now realize that I must treat my fellow women academics differently from the men. For they see the world through sexism glasses and need special attention for that. I must also place my women grad students is a special box so as to not destroy their world view.

anon said...

It's a catch-22, isn't it? I had someone in my department express concern because my yard looked too nice, as if the fact I had planted some bulbs last fall meant I couldn't possibly be spending enough time on research. (I'm not exactly thrilled to realize that this guy knows where I live, either - he's always struck me as a creepy breed of peculiar.) At the same time, I've been repeatedly told that it's essential for me to cultivate a passion outside of academia, because I will become a boring and unlikeable person otherwise.

I have to say that I wouldn't be pursuing an academic career if it weren't something I was passionate about. I have a disability that decreases my chance at a long life, so I want to do as much as I can as quickly as I can, because I love what I do. I've been criticized for being overfocused, but when I stop to smell the roses (or plant some narcissus, as the case may be)...well, there's just no way to win, or at least stop the flow of condenscending advice.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post... I always feel very self conscious when I admit to my colleagues that I take an art class on the weekends, or open a novel on the airplane while traveling with people associated with my university... I think it's a shame that so many academics particularly in science (not all male... I've met my fair share of monomaniacal FSPs...) seem to look down on openly embracing subjects other than science... as if it would make us care slightly less about our given subject or appear less "serious." Rather, I would argue that having interests outside of science actually allows us to reach out to nonscientists more effectively in our classes and public life...

Female Science Professor said...

arun - Based on what you wrote in your comment, I am pretty sure that the images would not be relevant to your research, but thanks for your interest.

Anonymous said...

Monomania, to some extent, is more prevalent in the mathematical sciences and probably needed to finish a dissertation. Beyond that some kind of balance in interests is better.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple professors in my dept (science) that are good friends. They go do outdoorsy stuff together fairly often and one of them does little "concerts" at a local coffeehouse several times a semester where he tells stories about himself and sometimes this other prof too. I think he's one of the best profs in the dept (if not at the school--that i've had at least), and i think part of that stems from his ability to do things outside of his former research interests and thus can relate things to us in interesting and fun ways. not to mention, his lack of "monomania" makes him a very interesting person to talk to and likable because he seems more human to us (=-o) and I enjoy going to the classes of profs I like as a person moreso than the profs I do not like, regardless of the subject matter.
There are a few monomaniacs in my dept as well and I always seem to find their presentation of material to be dull, which makes their classes, obviously, far less enjoyable than my other prof. I realize the point of college is not to entertain, but I learn the material much better from the fun prof than the dull ones too.

Anonymous said...

I am trying to hold myself back in response to "Jim," but his lack of reason is just ridiculous. If he truly is an academic then surely he depends on logic for any "success"...but I don't see his logic here. First, FSP made a case against "monomania" for anyone...a healthy, well-balanced life for anyone is a good thing. Second, FSP said that a colleague wanted all women grad students to be more focused. Anytime someone says an ignorant comment that describes all women as if we all are alike, then that is sexist. The same holds true of race, ethnicity, hair color, whatever. I could make a rude comment about every Jim in this world, but that wouldn't be fair or accurate, now would it?

Anonymous said...

When sad pathetic fucks like this demented lunatic are glorified as something to aspire to, nothing will change. My lab is extremely well funded, with multiple NIH grants and numerous trainees. But I sure as fuck won't be on my deathbed ruing the fact that if only I had woken up at 3:30AM every day, I could have had even more.

Female Science Professor said...

But PhysioProf, what do you really think?

Also: I seem to have lost an anonymous comment that just arrived -- not sure what happened. Please resend it if possible, but even if not, I was going to reply that you shouldn't give up if you don't want to. My advisor also 'groomed' his male students (but not me) for academic positions/success. I eventually got his attention by being stubborn and getting some interesting research results, so he wrote me good enough letters when I applied for various positions (postdoc, faculty positions etc.).

chemcat said...

I briefly saw the anonymous post 12.50.
Hang in there. My PhD advisor also was grooming a male colleague for academics (incidentally, the Chosen One was an academic child; the dad and the advisor knew each other well). I managed to get enough papers/work/attention from collaborators to land a great postdoc in the US, and I ended up in academics. The Chosen One is a patent officer.
The advisor and I went through a rough patch (he said things like how surprised he was that I was doing well as a postdoc), then started a more cordial conversation a couple of years ago. He's now collaborating with me, treats me as a peer, and helps out when he can. Apparently I now walk on waters :-)

Anonymous said...

I think your "lost" comment is in the last thread.

Anonymous said...

I'm always glad to see professors who have lives and interests out of their fields! Meanwhile, the desire for monomaniacal graduate students seems to be a generational thing -- only the oldest professors in my department desire it of their students.

In one example, one of the older professors in my department directly criticized a graduate student for not being monomaniacal enough -- because she had a wide range of interests outside of science, he thought that she was doomed to failure. She went on to get a prestigious fellowship.

Luckily, younger professors tend to have outside interests, and encourage them in graduate students, so I think the culture is changing.

Anonymous said...

If you're not a monomaniac, be aware that you are competing against monomaniacs. They are going to be putting in 80-hour workweeks, every week. If you're only doing 40 hours, you are going to need to be twice as productive as the monomaniac on a per-unit-time basis, because there's no checkbox that gives you extra points on your NIH grant for "has a nice garden", and the promotion & tenure committee isn't going to give your competitive kayaking skills much weight.

We have a deal here to try to be "family friendly" where they extend your tenure clock by one year for each child you have (men and women) while employed here up to a maximum of two years. If you arrive with children already, it doesn't count. This is a nice gesture, but you're still not going to beat the monomaniac.

Once upon a time when most everyone could get their grants funded and got tenure, you could have a life and still be successful. I'm not sure that's still true, and frankly, (having a life) I'm scared.

chemcat said...

anonymous, on the bright side, many monomaniacs have other problems. I started at the same time than a close friend of mine, who is a much better scientist than I am, has a better pedigree, and has a devoted stay-at-home wife. However, he does not have federal grants and has less papers than I have. Meanwhile I got married, had a child, and enjoyed other things... and got funded, published a few papers (OK, not as many as I would like/should have). Apparently I'm more creative, and I'm a better manager. I don't consider myself a success, and I constantly belittle myself over this, but I was stunned at the comparison.
So don't beat yourself up. Success in this business is linked to abilities, good work, and luck/circumstances-- sometimes in unpredictable ways.
Plus, what if you lead the kind of life Reed apparently leads (see Nature link), AND are not successful?! My first thought reading the article was, his poor wife. The second mirrored Physioprof's comments, minus the expletives :-)

Anonymous said...

I am a single female monomaniac. I am a threat to both women and men. IT sucks. I just love my research. Some people are passionate about their work. And yes, I feel discriminated against because of my devotion. Try being a female monomaniac. It is not bad as a grad student, but as a postdoc or young professor it spells Hardship and trouble. People will act like you are crazy if you are female and are completely devoted to your work, while if you are male, people will say that you simply love your work.
Can we please get rid of discrimination against women in science?! When will it ever end?

Anonymous said...

So what exactly is the problem with "monomania?" It seems like a perfectly valid way of moving science forward in what I hope is a meritocracy: Work hard, get some results, crank out a pub, buff your CV and repeat. If you don't want to put in the time/effort, fine. Go ahead, see your spouse, go to your kids' baseball game, learn tai chi. I say this sincerely and without any sarcasm. You reap what you sow. But please don't whine about people who are passionate about their work, find fulfillment in their work and are willing/happy to spend 40+ hours per week in the lab. There is already enough subjectiveness (as has been made clear ad nauseum in this blog) in this world that we don't need to make things worse with a "well roundedness" box to check off on the tenure review form.

Female Science Professor said...

I work hard, get results, and crank out the pubs. I am passionate about my work, I find fulfillment in my work, and I work > 40 hours/week. I am, however, not a monomaniac. It is not a choice between monomania and well-roundedness, where the former means "successful person" and the latter means "slacker". As nunatak said very well in the first comment "..monomania.. should not be considered the sole path to a successful career in science. Both styles.. can work."

Female Science Professor said...

And by the way, this particular colleague is not one of the odious ones, even though I don't agree with him about the monomaniac issue -- he is in fact very well intentioned and an excellent supporter of women in science.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how monomaniacs work. Perhaps it's because I spent too much time becoming "well rounded" so that I could be competitive in the college admissions process.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

For my subfield, if you are a monomaniac, you will not succeed--you must look beyond your exact research area to draw from lots of disciplines. Of course, the culture of graduate school (or at least here at LargeU) requires that one focus solely on research or risk losing valuable publications to such "meaningless" activities as time with family, exercise, hygiene, etc.

My personal decision to avoid this? Getting out of higher academics. Obviously, I'm not suggesting this to you or anyone else reading the comments; it's just my own solution to a problem that I don't see going away in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

anonymous 8:57, that's exactly the problem with monomanics: many of them do not realize that other people like FSP are just as passionate and hard worker. When these people are in position of power, even as advisors, they thwart whoever is not like them.

BTW my advisor is one of the most intense people I know, but works from 8 to 6, rarely works at home, stays home when the kids are sick, and has plenty of weird hobbies. Was elected to the NAS by 45.

Anonymous said...

There are two issues here.

One is defining success in academic science. For some people, success requires "beating" everyone in a perceived competition for "best scientist evah". For others, success requires commanding sufficient independence and resources to be able to have fun running your own research program and getting recognition from your peers for running a creative productive operation. If you define success as the latter, the pressure to shoulder an extreme workload--like that of Dr. Twelve Fucking R01s Wackaloon--is much less.

The other is determining what is required to achieve that success. My experience is that as one's workload on a particular pursuit, such as science, increases beyond a certain point, the benefits begin to drop off precipitously. Each person needs to find that point, and know that going beyond it is counterproductive. I am much more concerned about the morale and enthusiasm of the people in my lab than I am about exactly how many hours they put in. This works well, and my lab is extremely productive.

Finally, a point in response to the commenter who stated that she was going to exit academic science because she didn't want to have to give up the entire rest of her life. THIS IS BALONEY!

If you are in a reasonable position that doesn't require a massive amount of teaching, being a successful principal investigator requires substantially fewer hours per week than it does to be a successful grad student or post-doc. If you are creative, a good manager, and can read and write reasonably well and reasonably quickly, there is absolutely no reason you need to work more than 40 hours per week to be successful.

Of course, you can work more and be even more successful. But if your standard of success is the second one I listed above, then a normal workload is more than sufficient. If you can stick out the admittedly severe workload required of a grad student or post-doc, you can then ease off quite a bit as a PI.

Frankly, my experience has been that those academics who glorify "monomania" are stupid boring old fucks who have always had to work much harder than anyone else to make up for their lack of intelligence and creativity. And these assholes understandably get pissed off when they see other people doing just as well as or even better than them, but having a lot of goddamn fun doing it!

The whole point of being an academic scientist is that it's a fucking hoot, not to impress with your "seriousness" some stupid entitled asshole who became a PI when any white dude who got a PhD was pretty much guaranteed a tenure-track faculty position. Those of us who have made it more recently are simply brighter, more creative, and more well-rounded, and these superannuated fuckers don't like it. I say fuck 'em!

Anonymous said...

It's interesting though... I have often been branded as a "monomaniac" myself. I have never felt that I am, but maybe it is true and I do not realize it. Even so, I do not see what is wrong with being a monomaniac. The world is full of them (or us), in all walks of life.
I have always enjoyed working, never have done it because someone else was forcing me, much less to make tenure or more money (hahaha). I am pretty sure that I could have worked half as hard and made the same money and tenure too.
In any case, with no exception those who have called me (and others) a "monomaniac", have been people with trouble performing at an even passable level, who, in my opinion, felt that the comparison with me (and others) would hurt them.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, hot-button topic.

I think this is a sexism issue but it's due to cultural expectations, and we're all to blame.

Men are generally better about pointing out their productivity, because this is seen as positive. When women do it we're being arrogant. So we don't do it nearly enough.

So the perception from the outset is that women don't work as hard. When in fact many of us have to work harder just because of this stereotype.

Then comes the added sexism that some outside activities are perceived as traditionally appropriate for scientist types.

Photography (astronomy, microscopy), gardening (botany), hiking (ecology), food (nutrition), alcohol (chemistry), and sports (capitalism, the most important part of science- the funding!) all seem to be quite acceptable.

The traditionally more feminine activities, including having kids, tend to be associated with not being at work around the clock.

Anyway my point is that men have hobbies, too, but it's not seen as a weakness. Worse than that, the same hobbies can be seen as different for men vs. women.

Sports are perceived as helping train men to be competitors and team players, but it's also networking activity for them.

How can the PI complain that his grad student isn't focused enough, when he's on the same soccer team? And there's all the post-game male bonding, usually with beer.

Women who excel at sports generally have less chance to run into PIs in the locker room. We're missing the career-enhancing networking benefit.

As another example, I have a few female friends who volunteer at animal shelters, which they find relaxing. They don't want their (male) advisors to know, for exactly the reason that they'll be perceived as less focused.

Anonymous said...

First thought: Any thoughts on the desirability of monomania that come from someone with a stay-at-home spouse or hired domestic help or a full-time executive assistant need to be laughed out of existence as too irrational and self-serving to be anything but giggle fodder.

Second thought: Monomania feeds any person's natural human tendencies towards assholedom and control freak issues. The more you center your world on one thing, the more you think everyone else should too. It can work if you put the reins on your own brain correctly, but if you don't, you're bad at your job, no matter how much you think otherwise.

Kim said...

My advisor currently has three PhD students, all of them female, two of which have interests outside of school (me included) and one of which definitely falls into the monomaniac category! I understand that she really loves what she's doing, but it makes a tough situation--grad school in general--even tougher for the rest of us who aren't monomaniacs. We love what we're doing too, but it isn't recognized since it's perceived that we don't work as hard as she does. I've learned some techniques to deal with this internally, but I'm not sure that there is actually a way to "even the playing field" between monomaniacal and non-monomaniacal grad students (or faculty, for that matter). I think the issue is being accepting of both styles of work, and not penalizing one or the other for what might be perceived as lack of focus or lack of decent personality (I'm being nice here.)

Anonymous said...

someone asked in monomania was gendered...well if it is then given that ADD runs rampant in males and less so in females, then females should have a much better time of it. :)

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous 05.41 : 80 hours a week is not twice as productive as 40 hours.

If you are serving McDonalds, it may be.

But if you are engaged in any kind of higher level thought, you will not achieve twice as much.

You just think you do. Great creative leaps of perception come from using your brain in a different way.

Anonymous said...

Well I just got fired, and the reasons put were "not focusing on science because of having outside interests". The truth is my PI made some huge mistakes in making a project and I disagreed to continue it, because it was too close to science cheating. Then he covered his ass firing me and blaming all lack of results on me. While I really could do better and work more, all I've ever done in that lab was on my own. I had virtually no mentorship and no constructive criticism. I learned everything from technicians and postdocs from other labs, brought to life all the equipment (at the time I was the only student there), ordered equipment and usables, estabilished procedures from protocol-online, had to double-check myself because he wouldn't tell where my ideas had weak points, guided a student and read so many articles on how to do good science. Then he hired another person, kindly waited as I taught her everything I knew, developed my ideas and dumped me. If I had more self-esteem back then I'd change labs ages ago. He even told me I was too self-reliant! To act properly, I'd have to do bad science and keep quiet.
I'm sorry for being bitter. Outside interests can serve as an excuse to fire a person if there are other hidden problems in the lab.