Raising organic, free-range, n00b PhDs

Jan 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Oh, lookit at the fresh dramaz on the intertubes. While the topic of PIs flailing to find their footing is scintillating, it is not in my domain of expertise. So I will, in proper d-list fashion, talk about a tangential subject that allows me to tenuously link to the more popular one. Win!

Today, I shall discuss the issue of Time Spent being a Proper Slave in the lab. This is a divisive topic; from PIs who think their students don’t work enough to students who say they haven’t seen the inside of their eyeballs since 1933, and vice versa. I will already declare my potential bias as I instituted a ‘cut yourself more than 3 times and you’re going straight off to bed’ rule for myself years ago. Make hardass/carebear judgments as you will.

Indeed, in one of my most favoritest of labs, we came oozing in around noon, spent two hours lunching at our benches arguing about science and papers, harassed each other about experimental setups while we were working, and generally were noisy delinquents until we all dispersed for the evening to do it again. It was the best shit ever, and we did fucking creative and interesting science that got published in Bread & Butter Weekly as well as GlamourMagz.

Which is why at recruitment weekends I ran like hell from the uptight pretentious Fuckwads that started rhapsodizing about minimum 70 hour work weeks, mandatory working hours, or this ‘as long as I’m working, you’re working’ bullshit.. Some people take this pressure (Fuckwad) + carbon (lazy MFing PhD student) = diamond (Golden Child) analogy way to goddamn seriously. IMO, all this results in is a lab stocked with a bunch of zombies that are relying mostly on muscle memory to get them to the end of every day because their synapses were fried away long ago. Or you get a lab roiling with mutinous rage that said Fuckwad is totally oblivious too, or is under the delusion is normal for running a good lab

Because, as stated in many places round the blogosphere, not all students are created equal. I will spend two weeks troubleshooting a nuanced problem a labmate can theorycraft the solution to if given an hour and a latte. I can look at two data sets and zero in on a malfunction whereas someone without good hands might spend a month thinking they’re the problem. Making us show up at 8am on Saturday to put on a good face isn’t going to make results appear from the nether. Hell, I have no extra neurons to devote to basic human decency at 8am, so you’d be forcing the lab to interact with a sociopath for at least 2 hours a morning.

I am not saying that we should all work strictly 9-5 and visit the unicorn park afterwards.

Figure 1: I mean, have you seen the state of unicorn parks lately? By the way you totally need to be reading Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell

But I am saying people need to no get so hung up on absolute hours and more on shit produced. If you’re putting together your progress report and you feel a little queasy at the lack of data/progress, get thine ass to the lab. And if you’re their PI feel free to thine ass to the lab’d them. But if they’re busting their ass and getting shit done there is no point in getting all pissy when you can’t find them to ask a question at 2am*. To return to prior trite analogy, sometimes your carbonz ain’t going to turn to diamonds, ok? But it’s still totally useful for many applications and you should learn to appreciate that, because if everyone were a diamond you probably wouldn’t have a job.

I’m just sayin’.

*Yes, this is real life.


11 responses so far

  • Nina says:

    The analogy is fantastic. And I love being Carbon.

  • scicurious says:

    I <3 this. Especially the title. I am totes an organic, free range, shade grown N00b. :)

  • I did my PhD in a lab where if you couldn't plan your experiments well enough to join everyone else for two tea breaks and one lunch break a day, everyone thought you were an idiot with no time management skills. Hardly anyone worked weekends, except for final year grad students.

    When I started my postdoc in another lab, I suddenly had all these lulls in my day, at regular PhD-lab-break-times, and no-one to go for tea or lunch with (except Friday lunches). Very sad. But lots of after-work beers, and again, hardly anyone worked weekends - the boss spent every weekend hiking, cross-country skiing or kayaking, and preferred to hire trainees with similar interests!

    Both were good, productive labs that published well - no Glamour Mags, but solid 2nd tier journals - and both were very social and a blast to work in. Other labs in both institutes were run by K3rn-type PIs, and the rest of us just pitied them so much.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    But I am saying people need to no get so hung up on absolute hours and more on shit produced.

    I agree with this. This is the rational approach. It also cuts both ways. Not everyone who works weekends is an idiot, and not every childless scientist fritters away the "overtime" she or he spends in the lab. I am never going to figure out why people don't just focus on what is actually getting done.

  • My husband is a physicist at a major lab, and he needs to read this post.

  • Jeanne Garbarino says:

    What if you prefer to be silicon? Same valence electrons except has more bounce.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:


    I am one of those weekenders, in the interests of full disclosure, but that's because I can do tons of experiments using all the shared equipment AT THE SAME TIME. [Also why I tend to work afternoon/evenings] Plus, my living creatures require love and attention every 48 hours or so anyways...

    I prefer to spend my weekdays talking science (and grad school), troubleshooting, analyzing data, and doing multi-day experiments. Things that require talking to people have to be accomplished at certain times of the day - my experiments, usually not so much.

    If PI were to tell me to be at work at 8AM... it would not be pretty (unless I was still there from yesterday). If my PI were to tell me that I have to work if PI is at work I wouldn't like that either. I get that there needs to be some overlap, but damn, aren't I an adult by now?? [exceptions possible for shiny new grad students, of course, who can't work alone yet]

    For me, it works out to somewhere between 40-50 hours most weeks (unless I am being crazy on deadline). I am not a diamond, but I might be shinier than graphite at least... :)

  • thehermitage says:

    Nina: Being carbon is totally awesomesauce!

    Scicurious: Being grown in teh basements is not an upgrade sci XD.

    VWXYNot?: Precisely. Who can be an autobot 24/7? I don't understand people who can spend 8 years at PhD and never get to know their labmates because they're always 'too busy'. Seems like a waste to me.

    Juniper: Because that requires nuance and it's totes more fun to pretend none of us have lives and fuck over the n00bs who don't know any better an actually try to do that.

    Magnificent: Now, we both know physicists never listen to any other discipline except mathematicians (when tipsy and on Friday the 13th), let's be real hehehehehe.

    Jeanne: That kind of would make you perfect and then we all hate you.


    Sort of.

    Pharm: I'm all for working whatever the fuck hours it takes for you to get your shit done . It just annoys me when people try to throw down some universal law for how shit gets done'd. I spent most of undergrad trolling the lab at 2am because that's when I could get shit done without someone mucking around in my crap, not because I was liek super hardcorezzzz.

  • Nice post! I am a big fan of treating my group as responsible adults. I would hate having to micromanage them (and I have enough to worry about without tracking people's hours!) I think my students are hard working and making good progress on their projects, and all I demand time-wise is that they get their stuff done, they tell me when they won't be in, they are around for group meetings, and they understand about crunch time for deadlines (which I try to tell them about well in advance).

    I may be less productive in terms of grinding out sheer numbers papers than some of my hardass colleagues, but I think we do better, more creative science. And my grou p morale is certainly better!

  • [...] the same topic from the student’s point of view at The [...]

  • Namnezia says:

    As a grad student and postdoc I rarely worked weekends and rarely left the lab later than 6 pm. If you can just go in and get your shit done efficiently, who cares about the hours. And that's basically what I expect from my lab peeps; their hours are their own, as long as they get their shit done.

    However, if the going is good, you gotta go with it. What irks me is watching one of my students break down a super productive prep they've been working all day to set up just because it's time to go home. I'd rather they stay and get more data out of it, and then take the next day off. If the data is flowing, then you go with it.

Leave a Reply