Monomaniacal Scientists

Mar 21 2008 Published by under Careerism

Female Science Professor wrote yesterday about the concept that "serious" scientists should be "monomaniacal" about their work, in the sense of elevating science above all other pursuits in life, and spending virtually all of one's time and effort on science to the exclusion of all else. In response to one of her many asshole male colleagues' comments that "he wished more women grad students had 'monomania' when it came to research/Science", she rightly points out that this is a pernicious idea, and one that serves to reinforce shitty gender norms:

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.

The idea that monomania is necessary for success in academic science raises two issues.
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. Wackadoodle Twelve Fucking R01s"--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 life's 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. One can be much more productive overall in life by apportioning one's efforts to multiple pursuits. When PhysioProf was a post-doc, he spent ~20 hours per week pursuing a profession completely separate from science. If anything, I am convinced that this increased my scientific productivity.
This has a corollary for how to manage a lab. 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.
One commenter at Female Science Professor's blog 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 heavier 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 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 "monomaniacal" fuckers don't like it. I say fuck 'em!

19 responses so far

  • acmegirl says:

    [pumps fist in the air] YES!!

    The whole point of being an academic scientist is that it's a fucking hoot, not to impress 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.

    Damn straight! I've definitely noticed a huge difference in attitudes between the public university I did my undergrad at and the Ivy League school I'm doing my PhD at. I promised myself that I wouldn't get caught up in that whole fighting to be incrementally better than the next person, just for the sake of being able to stick your nose that much higher in the air. Not that I regret my choice, I've also been exposed to a lot of expertise I wouldn't have gotten at a less prestigious institution. But it's easy to start believing that there is only one way to do things when you surround yourself with only one kind of people. Thanks for the refreshingly human point of view!

  • Propter Doc says:

    I had to look up monomaniacal. I'm not monomaniacal about my science, but at the same time I don't view it as an ordinary job. I realized about 10 years ago that what ever my career was going to be it was going to have to be more than 'just work' because I do get too wrapped up in a task. I take work home, I like to chew at problems in the evenings. I also view family and hobbies at the same level, it all connects and is all equally important. So I don't feel guilty about spending a day with my family or an evening working on a hobby, or a Friday holiday in the lab. Somewhere in my head it is all equally important and equally deserving of my attention. Maybe this means I won't be a great PI, or maybe it means I'll end up looking for a new career in the long run. I don't think I can change this about myself so I hope you are right about the infighting and one-up-person-ship.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Propter, the point is that there is no need to be monomaniacal to be a successful academic scientist. But that doesn't mean that you don't need to be passionate! The way you describe your own attitude and approach, it sounds absolutely suited to a successful career as an academic scientist.

  • abe says:

    monomaniacal? if you are, then you will either be very successful or you will be suicidal when you fail.
    Me, I teach, do research (I down sized to a primarily teaching position because I love teaching and being a generalist, I could never be mono- anything--- must be the ADD). I build houses, do electrical and plumbing for friends, play music(well try to play music), run marathons, raise a family (two folks in family with disabilities--hence part of the reason for downsizing to small college), coach, boy scout leader, cook, bake bread daily, garden and can. (yes I am male)
    But the great thing about academic science---you set most of your own schedule. (even if the schedule science unless you are doing something else....I agree there is little down time in my life)

  • David Lee says:

    Interesting read. I'm no scientist but I do appreciate good writing.
    And it touches on a very American idea--endless work. I don't think the Europeans are putting in those hours and they're a lot happier overall.

  • bayman says:

    I have trouble figuring out what's work and what's not in science.
    Certainly 24-7 of work is not healthy, but what if experiments and reading don't feel like work?
    For me, work means stupid inhumane shitty stuff like paperwork. Figuring shit out is fun!

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    PhysioProf is certainly correct that many academics are exceptionally slow-witted, and many more would be hard-pressed to identify an interest they would even want to pursue outside the office/lab.
    Still, being successful on a 40-hour workweek seems a bit unrealistic in the current climate. Unless you have some combination of the following: 1) an incredibly light teaching/ administrative/ review load; 2) a highly competent lieutenant; 3) an exploitative personality; 4) a relatively non-competitive subfield. I have seen it work, but it ain't necessarily pretty.

  • PhysioProf says:

    It is interesting that this idea that you don't have to be monomaniacal seems threatening to some people. Just be clear, we're talking about monomania: a focus on scientific labor to the exclusion of all else. That is what monomania is.
    In no way is the point that you don't need to, or shouldn't be, passionate about science. Of course you should be passionate, and if that passion leads to an intense desire to push hard to make shit happen, that is wonderful.
    As a grad student or post-doc, you do need to work hard, certainly more than 40 hours per week, and probably something like 50-60 hours per week. This is because your productivity as a grad student or post-doc depends on physically performing experiments, and experiments have their own pace. No matter how smart and efficient you are, you can't proceed any more quickly than the physical reality of the experiments permits.
    But a substantial amount of this work (~1/3) is not sitting at a bench doing experiments--it is reading, writing, analyzing data, etc. I encourage people to do that stuff anywhere and anytime they want, not necessarily in the lab.
    As a PI, your productivity is no longer rate limited by the physical reality of experiments. The faster you can read, write, and think, the more productive you can be for a given amount of work. As I explicitly stated, *if* you have a relatively light teaching burden, you can run a highly successful laboratory on 40 hours per week. This is because onerous teaching becomes rate limiting, just like performing experiments.
    But this does not require (1) exploitation or (2) a non-competitive field/sub-field. It does require having enthusiastic and competent trainees in the lab, but not a "lieutenant".
    I have a "three-R01" size lab, with about a dozen people. We work in a highly competitive field/sub-field. All of my trainees are bright, enthusiastic, and creative, and none of them would ever consider me exploitative. None of them spend more than 50 hours per week physically in the lab, and they are all extremely grateful for the highly effective mentoring and training they receive. No grad student or post-doc that has entered my lab has failed to achieve at least one, and most at least two, first-author publications in quality journals.
    Things work this way because I have arrived at an effective explicitly designed method for managing my lab and mentoring my trainees. And I do this *all* on about 40 hours of explicit effort per week. Of course, I am sure that I spend additional time and effort thinking about science, whipping off e-mails here and there, but I have plenty of time to do all sorts of other stuff: blogging, commenting on others' blogs, reading, exercise, family, friends, travel, nice meals, sports, etc.
    Maybe I should craft a blog post describing how this can all work. The fact is, scientists are generally never trained in how to do *any* of this shit, and the norm for mentoring and managing a lab is generally abysmally shitty. That is why it seems incomprehensible that you don't need to be monomaniacal to succeed.
    But it's bullshit. You don't.

  • kevin z says:

    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.
    That is not the message at my institution. Our lab has been repetitively told that grad students are expected to work 14-16 hours a day, while new assistant professors are expected to put in 16-18 hours a wee to be successful (loosely defined i guess).
    My problem is that I'm not necessarily monomaniacal about my research, aspects of it I certainly am, but I am absolutely monomaniacal about science. I eat, breathe and live it. I can view no life without it anymore. Even if I were to quit the field of science and open up a bed and breakfast in the Caribbean, I would still blog on it and try to write for magazine or what have you.
    But when I look at all the successful (in a research or teaching position) graduate students that gone before me in my lab, they all had plenty of extracurricular activities that took up time in their lives, but were efficient writers.

  • Massimo says:

    I am not sure this has necessarily to do with academia or research. My impression is that, in the private sector, in banks, professional sports, in all walks of life, people who work harder, and as a result produce more than average, are resented by others because they raise the bar. Hence the charge of being "monomaniacs", of being excessively focused on work as a result of some personality disorder, or life issue.

  • PhysioProf says:

    But the real resentment is reserved for those who don't visibly "work harder", yet produce more than average. And it is ladled out by those "monomaniacs" who do "work harder", but still don't achieve more than average.
    This is why Female Science Professor's fuckwit male colleagues seethe with resentment of her. She is extremely accomplished, yet is also a decent well-rounded fun-loving person who visibly enjoys what she does and inspires the respect and affection of others. Superannuated entitled assholes who are past their prime and know in their hearts that they have never achieved what she has hate that shit.

  • ---"and the norm for mentoring and managing a lab is generally abysmally shitty. That is why it seems incomprehensible that you don't need to be monomaniacal to succeed"----
    As is the norm for you, you are right on the money on your arguments PP. The one that I excerpted is a major underlying key, in my opinion. Back in grad school we used some of our 'ethics' sessions to discuss whether it should be mandatory for faculty to have some basic management training. There were many reasons for this--all basically coming down to the fact that many of our lab heads were mystifyingly clueless at times to lab (and outside) realities. As we saw it, a lot of faculty members were ones that had buried their heads in their previous labs and published like fiends, got their current appointments, and didn't understand why everyone else couldn't be like them.
    And all that discussion is only about those that actually work more hours.
    One of the more insidious effects of monomania at the grad school and (sometimes) post-doc level (that hasn't been brought up yet), is that people who hung around aimlessly in the lab for hours often get credited with being motivated workers, while equally or more productive people who have active interests outside the lab are perceived to be less serious about the science. And if you think it all shakes out at the end in published productivity in the end, you are wrong; great emerging projects often get handed to those deemed most deserving in the lab---and guess who that is in monomaniaville? Also, if you think it doesn't affect word-of-mouth promotion at conferences etc or the the extra-oomph in recommendations, again, you are wrong.
    Pet peeve of mine--but I have been around one too many 12-hour lab rat who accomplished less than 6 hours of actual work. And I should know from personal experience too--I was guilty of it in early grad school, till my outside interests forced me relentlessly to optimize my lab time.
    Anyway, getting back to people who actually work the insane extra hours and believe others should---as we've seen from some comments already, this is a really bad trend and will tend to drive out many talented, bright people out of science just because they choose to have complete lives.
    We have already stacked the deck against bright people entering science with poorly competitive pay-scales and a funding-crunch on top of that. Science could certainly stand to lose an additional detriment to attracting intelligent well-rounded personalities by eradicating monomania.
    Finally, a general comment: I commend PP, DM and their ilk for the invaluable career-advice they dish out here.
    I think I speak for many when I say that I wish I had had a resource like this to draw upon, back in the day.

  • Dammit PP, by the time I finished my rambling you nailed my point. I guess I haven't learned to write faster/well yet. But I'll get there.

  • bayman says:

    As a PI, your productivity is no longer rate limited by the physical reality of experiments. The faster you can read, write, and think, the more productive you can be for a given amount of work. ... you can run a highly successful laboratory on 40 hours per week.
    Maybe the a lot of the PIs who think they need to spend more time working to be successful are the ones who still spend some time in the lab doing experiments, instead of full-time managing?

  • SRivlin says:

    Does one need to be filthmouth to be a successful bloger? Why do you, PP, choose to decorate your posts with so many F...... and A..h... ? Since you are a successful scientist (who could be, I am sure, even more successful without the profanity), who puts 40 hours a week into his science, maybe you should spare a few moments before you click "enter" to post your posts and clean them!!!

  • TreeFish says:

    Bravo! I am only recently learning about life beyond lab, and I am astonished at my current mentor's efficiency. He/she sounds a lot like you: kicks scientific butt, has a 3-R01 sized lab with productive students, is adored by his/her colleagues, but also has an ample extra-laboratory life that he/she loves (including multiple kids).
    I would recommend the BWF/HHMI's books in lab management. I would also like to commend you on always positioning yourself on the fulcrum of insanity and cogency. It's straight-talk, in an active voice, directed toward salivating ears that want to learn. Feel free to pepper your dumplings of wit and wisdom with as many f-bombs as you see fit.
    The question is how do you stay efficient/competent/revered without monomania? Do you have to get over what other people 'think' and at the end of the day shove your biosketch up their a**? I'm sure surrounding yourself with great people in your lab is key, but what's the key to being comfortable being a great scientist/duderino WITHOUT being a monomaniac? I feel like saying 'blow me' a lot to people who brag about how much they're in lab, but I also know that sometimes in a lab/dept, perception is reality...

  • TeaHag says:

    One of the great advantages of PI-dom realative to the comparative drugery of the grad student or post-doc is that a moment of inspiration can come at any moment, and a grantsworth of "concept" pop into one's head in the 20 minutes on the bus or while rinsing your hair in the shower, but the biochemical assay or the mouse experiment still take just as long as they take.
    I came up with my first RO1 while nursing my first-born. A protracted period of having to sit completely still with both hands busy..left unanticipated time to think, devise, revise... and the writing came very quickly after that.

  • Loved this one, which I read while trying to decide whether to stick it out in lab til the really late bus. After this, decided NO. I've seen a lot of graduate students, really smart ones, exit science or not even join labs because they were too intimidated by the work hours, real or perceived.
    I combat this feeling with a native arrogance that lets me assume that any institution that won't hire my 55-hr/wk ass isn't an institution I give two shits about anyhow.

Leave a Reply