Punch-Clock Astronomy

Leave the punch clock alone. You don't get paid by the hour. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The astronomical community is all a-flutter, a-twitter, and many other bird-related analogies besides. What has put the proverbial cat among the pigeons? None other than this letter, a ten-point manifesto meant to politely scold the grad population of a major research university’s astronomy department for not being quite up to scratch, guilty of sins as grave as leaving the office on weekends. The letter’s tone and content have caused quite a stir, with John Johnson, Julianne Dalcanton, Jason Wright, and Peter Coles all weighing in on the matter. Even though the gossip mill has more or less pinpointed exactly where this email came from and who it was sent to, I will not embarrass the denizens of Unnamed Academy by pointing fingers. It doesn’t matter where this letter came from. What matters is the toxic attitude it represents.

There are a lot of problems with this letter, but the idea I want to focus on is the first one: the notion that if you aren’t working 80 to 100 hours a week, if you don’t live at the lab and spend your nights and weekends at your desk, then you are a lazy slacker who doesn’t deserve a research position. It’s no secret that grad school is hard. Research is hard. The amount of effort required to make a career in research science should not be trivialized. But the idea that what really matters is punching the clock – that a real scientist eliminates everything except work from their life – is a dangerous and harmful one.

There are many factors that go into how many hours a researcher’s work demands: are you faculty or a student, an observer or a theorist, staggering through conference season or staggering through proposal season? A faculty member has a lot of demands on their time that grad students don’t, like applying for grants, filling out university paperwork, and otherwise engaging in the miracle of bureaucracy. Observers spend more time preparing telescope proposals than theorists. Theorists that do computer work spend a lot of time waiting in queues, then waiting for jobs to complete. Workloads vary from month to month and sometimes week to week. And of course none of this factors in the effects of computers – able to complete in an hour what might have taken you 50, then turn around and cost you an entire week to fix. Everyone works with a different style, with a different efficiency and under different demands, and it’s more important to find the style that works for you than it is to meet some target number. What you do with your time is between you, your advisor, and your god (possibly redundant).

A diatribe like this hits close to home because I’m willing to bet nearly everyone in the community has had the exact same thought at some point in their career: I’m not working hard enough. Guilt is a constant companion in grad school: guilt that you’re not living up to people’s expectations, that you’re not living up to your advisor’s expectations, that you’re falling behind your colleagues. That you’re not working hard enough, late enough, that you should be in the office right now.

That guilt is toxic. It will poison everything you do. It leads to burnout, depression, and a loss of the things that made you dedicate yourself to science in the first place. Scientific research is fundamentally a creative profession. It is less like developing a product and more akin to art with math. Creative burnout is a real thing and it really will screw you over.

But maybe you shouldn’t believe me. After all, I’m not faculty. Maybe I’m just getting defensive because I don’t live in my lab, because I am lazy and I feel judged. You might be thinking that, and I wouldn’t be mad at you for it, because I thought about that too. Then I remembered a story.

It should surprise nobody who knows me that my hero is Richard Feynman. After joining the faculty at Cornell, Feynman was offered a lucrative and prestigious position at Princeton. He turned it down because he felt like there was too much pressure and he couldn’t live up to expectations. He was going through a period of burnout – physics wasn’t fun for him any more. It was just another job where he punched the clock and went through the motions.

So he decided to relax. He and his friend were tossing around plates in the university cafeteria one day when he noticed that the plate wobbled twice for every time it rotated once. Curious as to why that was, he sat down and worked out the equations of motion of the rotating plates and why all the accelerations balanced to make the ratio work out just right. Then he started thinking about how such motions applied to electron orbitals, and it spiraled out from there to quantum electrodynamics. The motion of a simple revolving plate sparked a train of thought in his head that connected to his research, and from there to the fundamental laws of physics. That is the true meaning of “wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours,” not sleeping under your desk and having no friends. It is a mindset in which what you do for research is inseparable from what you do for fun, and on some level from who you are.

The number of hours you work is no more a measure of your success than the length of a paper is a measure of its quality. Don’t do more work. Do good work. Do things that you look at afterwards and say, “I am proud of this.” All that should matter in academia are results. If you are producing good papers with new and exciting research on 60 hours of work a week – dare I say, even less? – then you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing.

About Elizabeth Lovegrove

I'm a graduate student at the University of California - Santa Cruz, working with Stan Woosley on simulations of supernovae. In the past I've tinkered with gamma-ray astronomy, galaxy evolution, exoplanet detection, and instrument design. I like supercomputers, aircraft, observing runs, loud techno, and videogames. I am on an unending quest to develop the nerdiest joke in the world. You can find me on Twitter at @GravityAndLight.

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  1. GREAT article!

    this part pretty much sums it up:

    “The number of hours you work is no more a measure of your success than the length of a paper is a measure of its quality.”

  2. Thank you for writing this. I think it is the wisest, most compassionate response to the “80-100 hrs” letter that I have seen.

  3. Great post! I really like that Feynman story. My new goal is to spend fewer hours “suposed to be working.”

  4. Thank you for writing the response that all of us were trying to put together.

  5. I agree, this has been the best response to the subject I have read so far. I especially like the point that it is so hard to quantify what “work” is. Is me reading, commenting and thinking about this article a waste because I (probably) won’t produce any science out of it? In the end we are curious truthseekers, not robots!



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