"Well, I don't know if I believe anyone is 100% a dick..."

Jan 13 2015 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Careerism

I rescued a comment from the spam filter which addressed an older post on Scott Kern. As a reminder he's the researcher that published a long commentary wondering why kids these days weren't devoting insane hours in the lab anymore. He intimated that if you weren't spending your every working minute trying to cure childhood cancers you were a bit of a heel.

I disagreed.

But, in the spirit of Rhomann Dey I think it is important that you review the comment offered up by Jessa:

I spent years training with Scott in his pancreatic cancer lab at Hopkins. He was an incredible mentor and a natural ability to see things from odd angles that the rest of us overlooked.

Sure, sure. I'm willing to believe a dude comes across in a random, one-off frustrated rant as a bit more of a jerk than he really is to those who know him.

But, more than any other feature of my time with Scott, one thing stood above all. He is a fantastic Dad. He was OUT of there at 5:30pm. Granted his day started at 4am (I remember that he always joked that he woke up at 4am, once the coffee from 3am kicked in). He was at the dinner table every night, he made it a priority.

With such a great example and mentoring from such a swell guy, one might wonder why this person is no longer in science?

I have since left science in favor of being a stay at home mom. One thing I noticed while I was training is that the women mentors in the field were not home tucking in their babies. I distinctly remember standing on the dark sidewalk looking up at a bright lab window and seeing a woman faculty member in the lab. I thought "what are her little girls doing right now" I thought--I can't be like that.

Interesting. Look, I'm not going to question the way people choose to organize their lives and if 100% every night at home tucking in the tykes was the priority for this commenter, so be it. But she knows jack squatte from looking in a window at one faculty member. Maybe this person had a sharing arrangement with her spouse and on the next night would be home doing the tucking. Maybe this was a rare crunch week before a grant was due, a paper re-submit was coming together or she had a high profile talk to prepare for. Maybe tenure was fast approaching. Point being that many modern two-professional (yes even two-academic) parenting couples make a more balanced approach work. A more shared approach. Where both parties do some of the dinner making, some of the getting the kids out the door to school, some of the soccer practices and, yes, some of the reading of Goodnight Moon, and other classics.

This is a convenient time to review my observation from the original post on St. K3rn.

This sums up all that is wrong with these jerks (Kern is not alone in this "kids these days should spend more time in the lab" nonsense). Their obsessive vocational approach to science was made possible in many cases by a spouse who picked up the pieces for them at home. In sadly too many more cases, Obsessive Vocational Scientist Man operated at the expense of children who had a Dad who was never around, couldn't make the weekend soccer game, was constantly out of town on business and had to hide out in his study when he did manage to stay at home for a few hours.

The younger generations have chosen a different path. Deal, old grumpy dude. Deal.

Out of the house by 4am? And he managed to make it "at the dinner table" at 5:30?

Sorry but this evidence rather supports my presumption that Saint Kern has a stay-at-home spouse, or at least a spouse that picks up the vast majority of the workaday duties.

And his blathering about obsessive vocational behavior is rooted in the fact that he's bailing on so much of ACTUAL life. Screw that.

p.s., Male scientists want to be involved dads, but few are

Sarah Damaske, Elaine Howard Ecklund, Anne E. Lincoln and Virginia J. White Male Scientists’ Competing Devotions to Work and Family: Changing Norms in a Male-Dominated Profession, 2014, Work and Occupations, doi: 10.1177/0730888414539171

22 responses so far

  • Philapodia says:

    Well that was a douchee article. This idea that have to work 80-100 hrs a week or you're not passionate about what you're doing is just an excuse to be an asshole introvert. Besides, there are labor laws now that are supposed to protect workers from employers like Kern but have never seemed to have been applied to grad students or post-docs. Maybe if rad students and post-docs were paid hourly rather than on a set salary he would change his tune.

  • Don't you get it? Grad students and postdocs aren't "employees" -- they are "trainees". This fiction allows the generally left-leaning faculty to still feel good about exploiting them even if they are against, say, exploitation of migrant agricultural workers and the like.

  • rxnm says:

    "At the fucking stove cooking dinner at 5:30" might've impressed me.

  • Hermitage says:

    ikr? Oh great, the grand poohbah showed up to shovel food in his mouth and teach his kids the Socratic method before toddling off to bed. Maybe set up the coffee for the morning, what a saint.

    Of course they must exhort the younger generations to follow in their footsteps, otherwise it invalidates their life prioritizations.

  • Philapodia says:

    Comparing current scientists to oldsters like Sabin, Hubbins, and Lloyd who worked tirelessly to make their discoveries in the dark ages (and were therefore passionate) also ignores the fact that technology has evolved a bit since then. Want to find out if someone has done anything on your protein? In 1966 you had to spend days (or weeks) in the library basement reading through articles by candlelight. In 2014 you spend 2 minutes on pubmed while drinking your 25yo scotch and listening to Pandora. Techniques that weren't invented in 1966 are well optimized and standard now, so you don't have to spend months purifying proteins from crushed rat testes, you just express and purify from bacteria. Technology has made it so we don't have to work as much, just like in every other industry.

  • GM says:

    Well, there is a very simple reason people do not have the same passion for science anymore - there is very little in their environment to inspire it.

    When the people now lamenting why people are not working 16 hours a day were students and postdocs (and I highly doubt they were working that long themselves, they probably indeed worked more, but it was by no means at the level they are expecting from trainees now), the deal was fair and acceptable - you toil in the lab for a few years and then you have a reasonable expectation of getting your own lab and tenure. So, first, there is the payoff at the end, second, there is the certainty about the future that actually makes it possible to enjoy doing research.

    Fast forward to nowadays and there is no need for me to describe the situation in detail because everybody here is well aware of it already.

    It's kind of hard to enjoy the science when you know that if you don't make a big discovery/get a glam paper within a certain narrow time window, you are out on the street with your nontransferrable bench skills, the "overqualified" stamp that goes with your degreees, and the "failure" label that will follow you for the rest of your life for not having made it in academia.

  • Kevin. says:

    "Hmmmmmm...... crushed rat testes." *drool*

  • Dave says:

    Jeez GM, could you be anymore upbeat?

  • rxnm says:

    GM is right. What we used to offer trainees was a very fair shot at a research career in academia, then a pretty fair shot a career in academia or industry, then we offered a chance to role the dice a few times. Now we offer exactly dick in terms of career prospects, and with "training" time doubled.

    Arrogant BSDs like K3rn don't realize this...they think what's being offered is some kind of Papa Bear mentorship and a firm handshake after you get your big paper out, and that hasn't changed, has it?

  • Woman in Stem says:

    Sorry, but neither you nor Jessa know "jack squatte" about what kind of dad Kern is. The only ones who know that are his kids. Ditto about what he's missing out on, etc. Yes, he's wrong to expect his trainees to model their lives on his. But so are you and the rest of the "balanced" approach crowd. Your way is not better -- just different.

    "Look, I'm not going to question the way people choose to organize their lives and if 100% every night at home tucking in the tykes was the priority for this commenter, so be it."

    And what are you doing in the rest of your post, if not arguing why Kern is wrong and your way is Right? Let's not just replace one set of expectations, one standard, with another. I hope we can do better than that.

  • gingerest says:

    I maintain that if Scott Kern really cared about cancer patients, about ending a scourge that kills 30% of all persons, many of the victims young or of childrearing age, he would be studying primary prevention. Cures are for the shortsighted and the hopeless. People who spend 100 hours a week in the lab trying to cure cancer are just wrongheaded. If Dr Kern really cared, he would reorganize his life and career to ensure his discoveries centered on ensuring that no one, especially not children, ever became a cancer patient again, even if it meant working in a dirty cold attic. He just doesn't care enough, I guess.

    As someone who was often found in the lab at 7PM and later, working on my bit of a basic science project I barely understood, I can safely say it was because I was less organized and less efficient than the labmates who could wrap it up by 5 or 6. Also because I spent at least an hour a week getting allergy shots. But if some senior faculty came around and implied I was a saint for feeding my cells on a Saturday afternoon, I probably wouldn't argue with him, especially if it meant he would go the hell away so I could go back to playing Tetris while my media warmed.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dude works weekends, leaves the house before 4 am and is home at 5:30 according to his article and this personal testimony from Jessa. We're going on more than the single observation Jessa claims for one random faculty member.

    Naturally this commenter could be making it up and sure, maybe what Kern's Oped screed meant was that he happened onto campus on a weekend in a rare exception. But that doesn't square with appearances.

  • Ben says:

    One thing that wasn't mentioned in either article was the role of wage stagnation in further eroding the ability of an obsessional, vocational scientist to exist. I wouldn't want to, but I can't imagine how a young family could make do in some parts of my country on a single young academic wage (whether post doc or new lecturer).

  • qaz says:

    It really doesn't matter if St. K3rn was a saint or a fantastic dad or what. Lots of terrible tyrants were/are great people to their friends and their kids. Maybe he took time to go to his daughter's soccer games or his son's ballet recital or whatever. I don't care. What matters is that he is making claims about dedication that are wrong-headed, bad for science, and bad for the scientists under his rule and/or tutelage.

    The fact is that spending 24/7 in the lab is a recipe for bad science. If it was just step by step then we would be technicians and our process would be easy. Science requires taking the time to stop and think.

    Everyone needs to find their optimal productivity. For most people, being in the lab 24/7 is NOT the best solution.

    PS. Lots of dedicated dads and moms work weekends and are up at 4 am. Being up at 4 am does not preclude being a good parent. There's no reason that someone couldn't be at 4 am, spend an hour before the kids get up, take the kids to school, spend a typical day at work, be home (cooking) by 5:30, spend the early evening with kids, and then get another work cycle in the late evening after the kids go to bed. Especially now with the modern internets, it's often easy to do the non-bench thinking and writing stuff at home.

  • Philapodia says:

    I think this really has to do with ego. Guys like K3rn and McKnight think they are the shitte and that the youngun's aren't cutting it if they don't act the same exact way as they do. Working 80 hrs a week lets them tell themselves that they are better than the 40 hr clock-punchers.

    There is also a lot of narcissism with guys like this as well. Look at McKnight's lab website and you'll see that he and his own family are highlighted much more than his trainees (including his two pet "assistant professors" who don't get their own faculty websites but probably submit McKnights grants as ESIs). There are a lot of pictures of students that won his fellowship. But then, it's his fellowship. In regard to K3rn, his website lists all of the stuff the lab has done but give no real credit to his trainees (who probably did the actual work) outside of a list of their names. What did they do? Where did they go? By doing so he implicitly takes full credit for all discoveries.

    Guys like this aren't actually interested in promoting the development and scientific satisfaction of their (or others) scientific progeny. They are the old codgers on the porch yelling at the kids "Get off my damn lawn!!".

  • MorganPhD says:

    I've thought this hundreds of times and tried to verbalize it or write it down occasionally, but how on earth are there not more people interested in scientific workforce management?

    There are hundreds to thousands of business school profs who study the workforce, except when it pertains to the "scientific workforce", aka graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and so on.

    My guess (at this point since we only have anecdotal evidence so far) is that "hours worked" and "productivity" would not exist in a perfect linear relationship which is what one group of people, like Scott Kern would seem to argue. (Productivity is in quotes because I don't want to get into the measures of productivity, like JIF and total publications, etc).

    We'll have plenty of people with 90 hour work weeks with high ranges of "productivity". Just as we'll have a large range productivity in the 40 hour work week types.

    By the same token, "passion" does not equal "time spent". I'm more passionate about my wife, but I spend more of my waking hours with science than my wife due to our careers. Now that makes me sad.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    "hours worked" and "productivity" would not exist in a perfect linear relationship

    Exactly. In my first postdoc lab there were several women (postdocs) with small kids. Somehow they managed to get as much done while leaving at 5 or 6pm as a lot of single folks who basically lived in the lab.

  • jojo says:

    When I think about these issues I also think about how science for a long time was basically a hobby of the elite. Somehow science got done back in Victorian times when people would just do an experiment basically whenever it happened to tickle their fancy.

    Science will continue to happen whatever lifestyles people choose to have. Trust scientists to figure out what works for them in terms of work-life arrangements and freaking out about it. If they don't produce results given this freedom, then they should probably go do something else for a living.

  • jmz4 says:

    He's also missing a major aspect of modern labs relative to the halcyon days of old. Lack of independence.
    Even in a good lab, as a "trainee", you're spending about 35-50% of your time on a project that is either bread and butter and just as boring, or a pet project of your PIs. You need the former to make sure you have some sort of options for graduating and finding a job, and the latter must be done because the feudal lord commands it.
    Its hard to crank out the hours when you're not doing the work you really want to do. And this isn't limited to trainees, I'm sure PI's chafe under the fact that they can't really go balls out crazy with their experiments since everything needs to be pre-justified, peer reviewed, and backed up with preliminary evidence to get funding.
    A related note is that we can't do all the experiments ourselves anymore. Usually, getting a solid piece of work takes at least a couple collaborators.

  • Grumble says:

    "Technology has made it so we don't have to work as much, just like in every other industry."

    You are off your rocker. First, yes, you can find a specific article with PubMed much easier today than in 1966, but if you try to keep up with the literature, it's just a deluge compared to back then. Second, yes, there are many things that are a lot easier to do today than in 1966, but that doesn't make the practice of science any easier. Just like in 1966, you have to keep up with constantly-changing technology, have the insight to ask the right questions, and use the technology to answer them. This takes as much work today as it was in 1966.

    "how on earth are there not more people interested in scientific workforce management?"

    Money. Big businesses care about this sort of thing and, for the same reason that there are business schools but not schools for budding deans and provosts, there is far more interest in how to manage employees in the business workforce than in the academic workforce.

    "Science will continue to happen whatever lifestyles people choose to have. Trust scientists to figure out what works for them in terms of work-life arrangements and freaking out about it. If they don't produce results given this freedom, then they should probably go do something else for a living."

    Exactly. The Kerns and the Moo Ming Poos of the world will continue to write their silly demands and screeds. But ultimately we scientists, more than those in many other professions, are judged by our results. If students and post-docs and faculty don't perform, they end up exiting academia. Every scientist has to determine how much time must be dedicated to work in order to succeed, and it's a personal decision for all of us. What Kern and the like say is irrelevant.

  • Ola says:

    Any number of irrelevant anecdotes can be rattled out to distract from the original malfeasance. This is just another in a long list of examples, including but not limited to...

    - Hitler really loved his pet dog.

    - Actually some of my best friends are black.

    - NSA montoring protects us from terrorism.

  • Woman in Stem says:

    I agree that whether Kern is a good father or not is irrelevant (and furthermore, unknowable by anyone outside of his immediate family). But we need to cut Jessa some slack, as in the original post (and repeated here), DM argues:

    "In sadly too many more cases, Obsessive Vocational Scientist Man operated at the expense of children who had a Dad who was never around, couldn't make the weekend soccer game, was constantly out of town on business and had to hide out in his study when he did manage to stay at home for a few hours."

    And this invites precisely the type of response that Jessa made.

    This is the wrong way to look at it. What someone's familial obligations are should be irrelevant when it comes to talking about and deciding on proper workplace practices. In other words, the argument against 24/7 in the lab should be based on questions of productivity, not on whether this allows one to be a "good parent" (assuming we could all even begin to agree on a definition of that).

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