I’m in the wrong field or I’m sane or both

A while back, a co-worker of mine posted an editorial they had clipped from Nature, which was the advice of an experienced researcher to potential graduate students in the sciences titled “What makes a good graduate student?”.

Now, either I’m a textbook example of a piss-poor graduate student, or the author is an elitist crazy and I’m sane. Read on to see snippets of her “advice”, and my incredulity and disbelief.

Her article starts out with these inspiring words: “Those who stick with a career in science do so because, despite the relatively poor pay, long hours, and lack of security, it is all we want to do.”
Right off the bat, I’m out– It’s not ‘all I want to do’. I want to write, explore, play, vacation, and teach. Hell, if I could somehow bypass graduate school and go straight to instructor, I would probably jump for it.

After these inspiring words, she continues to a bullet-point list sparkling with such amazing jewels as:
“Work hard– long days all week and part of most weekends. If research is your passion this should be easy, and if it isn’t, you are probably in the wrong field.”
and it’s continuation (which I find vaguely repulsive): “Note who goes home with a full briefcase to work on at the end of the day. This is a cause of success, not a consequence.” I’m sorry, but if ‘success’ is so narrowly defined that leading a rich and fulfilling life in addition to performing an honest day’s work is failure, then I don’t want to succeed.

To her credit, she then lists some good advice, such as proper lab-book keeping and careful planning, and stresses the importance of creativity and writing skills. But she caps it off with a parting shot which I believe she meant in good cheer, but which I again find vaguely insulting: “To be successful you must be at least four of the following: smart, motivated, creative, hard-working, skillful, and lucky. You can’t depend on luck, so you had better focus on the others!”

I may be biased because I suppose I am a little bitter about graduate studies at this point… but damn. Is it so wrong to want a life outside of work?

3 Responses to “I’m in the wrong field or I’m sane or both”

This is precisely why I don’t think I can go to graduate school for a PhD. What scares me is that her observations match up with my own. New professors often work 70-80 hours each week and expect the same from their graduate students and postdocs. Older professors may relax a little bit more, but it’s a publish or perish world, so relaxation just means that you perish. I have a long-winded example of a professor in our department who took time off (sort of) to deal with her children (she’s a single parent) and health issues and her lab is nearing its demise – and universities REALLY want to keep female profs. But that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, I wouldn’t say you’re in the wrong field, but you may not want what most “typical” graduate students want. And I while I’d say you’re sane, since it’s a legal term, you still might be crazy. 😉

Does your experience with other graduate students resemble this article at all? Are you rethinking graduate school? (If so, hopefully not because of crazy Nature lady.)

ShortSpeedFreak - May 24th, 2006 at 8:33 am

I think there’s a bit of difference in how I want to define the phrase “it is all we want to do”. There were certainly people I met during my interviews that seemed like they were kind of unsure about doing research, and I can see them not being successful. But that doesn’t mean I think I shouldn’t limit my interests that have nothing to do with science, which is kind of what I get from the quotes.

It’s hard to say how much the perspective was skewed because they were recruiting people, but one thing that impressed me at Washington was that the professors and students seemed to have an attitude of work hard in the lab so it’s possible to have an outside life on weekends. That fits a lot more with what I think my view is. I have a hard time seeing myself working in a field without any research at all. (which seems more impressive as I’m starting to realize I’ve been in a much less than ideal research envionment as an undergrad). But I have a hard time imagining giving up my non-science interests as well.I think it’s a mistake to devote your whole life to a career no matter how much you enjoy your work.

mcmillan - May 30th, 2006 at 6:17 pm

On slashdot today, an article was posted questioning the American work ethic. I laugh at people about this (compare Puritanical America’s work ethic with the mandatory vacations and reduced work-weeks becoming common in Europe, for instance; or compare to the relaxed attitudes in Mexico and much of Central America). America has a ridiculously intense work ethic. One commenter on the article summed it up pretty well:

Most westerners, and Americans in particular, are sleep deprived as the norm trying to get in some semblence of a life between work. The majority of us have also become stimulant addicts in an attempt to make this easier, which in turn makes the stress of the day even more severe. On top of all that, we live in a society where it’s increasingly difficult to stay abreast of the latest changes in science, society, and the world and where most of us lack the time to comfortably allocate study time for the sake of pure learning. There’s little time for quality family time, especially with those not in our own household. And there’s precious little time to work on independant and alturistic projects which in theory could be of benefit to soceity. And if one finds any of that objectionable, he’s instantly tagged as lazy.
The world is one messed up place sometimes.

(emphasis mine)

Paradoxdruid - May 31st, 2006 at 9:17 am

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