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"There are several areas of concern..."


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Hello, all! This is part of a letter sent to the entire grad student body in a high-tier astronomy PhD program only a few weeks ago. It's taken the Web by storm (in a very negative way), and I wanted to know your opinions--specifically, from those who have been through more than one year of grad school. I've bolded parts that concern me most.

Dear Grads,

The Academic Program Committee just completed its review of the grads. Below is a letter summarizing that review, some information for graduate students, and the concerns that you expressed in your department evaluations.

In general, we are pleased with how our students are progressing through our program. There are, however, several areas of concern that we want to bring to your attention.

First, while some students are clearly putting their hearts and souls into their research, and spending the hours at the office or lab that are required, others are not. We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work. There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers. However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that
they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school
. No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.
We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends
. Nowadays, with the internet, it is fine to work from home sometimes, but you still miss out on learning from and forming collaborations with other graduate students when everyone does not work in the same place at the same time.

We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work. Again, what matters most is productivity. Any faculty member or mentoring/thesis committee will be more than happy to work with any student to develop strategies to maximize productivity, even in those cases where the student is unable to devote more than 60 hours to their work per week.

You were all admitted to our program because you expressed the ambition of becoming a research astronomer. We know that you are concerned about the market for post-docs and faculty positions. Yet the market is no worse or better than it is has been for at least a decade or two. The people who will get the best jobs are the type of people who always get the best jobs, those with a truly exceptional level of dedication to science, who seize ownership of their research and careers, and who fix problems instead of blaming others for them.
If you find yourself thinking about astronomy and wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours, then academic research may in fact be the best career choice for you
.

Second, a related problem is that some students are not reading enough of the literature. All students should read at least several papers/week. You do not have to read the entire paper, as sometimes just the abstract, intro, figures, and conclusions will provide you with sufficient information. Nevertheless, please read. Knowing what is going on, right now, in your field and other fields is crucial to your development as a scientist. We would like to see more students engaged in defining their research projects and theses. We would like to receive more telescope proposals from students and post-docs that do not include faculty members. To do so, a detailed knowledge of the literature is a must.

Third, we have received some student comments about the way in which faculty do participate. Namely, that some faculty-student interactions have become too intense. In these cases, it is not the faculty member’s intention to make the student uncomfortable. The faculty member means to interact with the student as he or she would a peer. That should be flattering to the student! Faculty questions (at least in this department) do not arise from a desire to embarrass a student speaker, but from a real scientific interest in the answer. In such cases, the student should do his or her best to respond and, frankly, to consider the experience good (and relatively gentle) training for any discussion at Caltech or at Tuesday Lunch at the Princetitute.

I love my area of study. Truly, I do--and I love my research. But if it came down to a choice between working on research and sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and a good fiction novel, I'd take the latter in a heartbeat. I'm putting in about 70 hours a week right now and don't think I can go on at this pace.

What are everyone's thoughts?

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Actually this was a nice letter by your department. I put in about 80 hours and my free time is spent reading up on the literature. 2 articles should be the min. Everyone should thank your department for this letter and it shows they care about your future. If they didn't care they wouldn't of sent it. But to get jobs this is what it takes and you think it gets easier after school? A phd should be your passion and should always be on your mind. Even when I'm not working I'm thinking about my subject

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How has " it[] taken the Web by storm (in a very negative way)" ? It seems like par for the course. I usually run into a post doc or two when I'm in on my late night lab sessions. Haven't seen too many profs on the weekends, but I can usually get ahold of them easily via email. Mine like to work from home.

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I'm pretty sure that this is an average for most graduate programs but it's still utter bs. 100 hours per week means that you work atleast 14 hours a day 7 days a week. Such practices were banned and outlawed in most professions some decades ago..

I think most of us have enough passion for our subjects to put in 14 hours 5 days a week and then an additional package during the weekend (in at 6, out at 8.30 is regular to me as a MA) but to assume that one does not need any rest or disconnect is just horrible.

Even if this is the way it is - it's still not an ok practice nor a good deal for either party.

Additionally - "I love my area of study. Truly, I do--and I love my research. But if it came down to a choice between working on research and sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and a good fiction novel, I'd take the latter in a heartbeat. I'm putting in about 70 hours a week right now and don't think I can go on at this pace."

This attitude means that you should quit and do something else..

Edited by cherub
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So, to translate:

"We give you so much work that you don't have time to do your own research. The problem, of course, is that you are not working hard enough. Moreover, we do not trust that you are actually working all the time when you are at home, so you need to be spending 16-hour days in the lab. Every day. Every week. Never you mind that everyone exaggerates how much work they do/how little sleep they get in retrospect, because we live in an effed-up culture where it's cool not to sleep, to be a workoholic, to brag about how horrid your life is, to brag about how horrid the weather in your city is, etc. And fat chance we will raise your stipend! Also, we have entirely forgotten that when you are a graduate student, the stress level of any interaction with a faculty member at your school is multipled times a GAZILLION. We have forgotten what it is like to be smooth and confident with people you may never see again or who have no power over your immediate or intermediate-term fate, but feel like the gum on the bottom of the shoe of the people who hold the power of life and death and doctorate over you."

I am suspicious in general of "you must be miserable because we were miserable" arguments. As a medievalist, I see very very many reasons universities should adapt to new ideas and knowledge about stuff like, oh, how much sleep the human brain needs to function semi-properly, instead of doing what has always been done. Or perhaps you physical science people would like to begin your graduate careers by teaching Bible study?

On the other hand, I think a lot of the points *could* actually be quite good ones, but the method of delivery (a mass letter to all the students in the dept? the Voice From On High?) sort of shifts it from the well-intentioned mentor voice that I assume its author thinks s/he was assuming, to the patronizing "kids these days" tone that yields my 'translation.'

Edited by Sparky
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I doubt anyone legitimately puts in 100 hours of productive work week after week. It's just not possible given the human body's need for rest. So, that point in the letter is ludicrous. Seriously ridiculous. And, as Sparky points out, there's no legitimate reason for it. The author even indicates that when s/he says that they recognize that not everyone can commit to 80-100 hour work weeks but that productivity is what matters most.

The part about needing to read is a legitimate one. I try to read at least the abstract and conclusions of an article every day, though this doesn't always happen for any number of reasons. But yes, we need to read to know what's going on in the discipline and stay current.

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I had to work 100+ weeks in my past life as a resident (worst period of my life), and while it is *technically* do-able, it is not in any way, shape, or form healthy. I had to learn how to keep compulsive checklists because my memory was unreliable due to exhaustion and my mind tried to play tricks on me to convince me my work was done when it wasn't. It was really weird feeling as though I could not trust my "memories" and it's something I never experienced before or since that period. When your mind and body desperately need sleep, I guess weird things do happen. Also, I frequently had trouble staying awake while driving home, and I switched my route to one that was pretty deserted (country backroads), so that if I hit something, it would most likely be a tree and I hopefully wouldn't kill anyone other than myself. I was too caught up in the residency "experience" to realize that this was not a healthy solution to the problem. So, ANY program that thinks you should be there 80-100 weeks or more is insane and abusive, in my opinion.

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Everyone focuses on the 80-100 hours per week, but the way I read the letter is not that they're expecting that from everyone, but that's what a lot of them did, and why.

They even mention it being well doable with under 60 hours per week if you have constraints on your time.

I think it's also worth pointing out that this is a top-tier program, and they're likely indicating what is necessary to stay at the top of the field.

It's interesting (to me) that when musicians, artists and athletes are consumed by their work and are at the top of the field, we think the dedication is admirable. But when we talk about academics and researchers who are, or are shooting for, the top of their field having their research dominate their life, we think it's a horrible thing.

Personally, I thought the letter was well written, and explained expectations without undue pressure.And unlike many top programs in the sciences, while 80-100 hours was mentioned, it was also clearly stated that the hours aren't as important as the productivity. Many other programs seem to hold the opinion that if you're being very productive at 60 hours, you'd be even more productive at 100.

Also, in response to Emmm, they're saying 80-100 hours per week of time put in. Not 80-100 hours per week in the lab, or even at school. Most people I know that quote times like that are also counting time at home reading papers and writing in the evenings in addition to more "normal" days at work.

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Another letter that shows why grad school is probably not for me. Once I graduate I think I will be out of here, at least for a while. Besides, I don't really follow this notion that you can only do something if you are so passionate all that you can do is focus on that thing. That's a compulsive behavior. That's not healthy. I find a lot of things interesting enough that I could probably spend a career dealing with them, but probably nothing so interesting that I would lose all concept of who I am as a person and other aspects of my life. I realize there are a lot of people like that in grad school, and I think that's part of the reason why I don't like it.

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See, the problem I see in this thread (and in may similar trains of discussion) is that people lump "graduate school" all together.

While there are similarities, there's a difference between being, say, a good college athlete and an olympic caliber athlete. There are top level, highly competitive programs that are there to push (and create) the upper echelon of academics. Those people that love their work so much that it becomes their life- just like with any other top career (music and athletics come to mind).

Then there are other, solid programs for people who really love what they do, but don't love it so much that it's the only thing in their life. I go to such a program, and there are a number of them out there.

Will I be highly competitive for jobs teaching at a top-10 school? Probably not, but I knew that going in. I like my work, and I like to teach, and I would be perfectly happy at any of the lower tier schools out there.

There's nothing wrong with "elite" programs that cater to and are built around people who are obsessed with their work. But those don't make up the entirety of graduate education.

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Dear Professors,

If you were to informally canvass your retired predecessors and ask them what the most rewarding experiences of their life were, none of them will answer with the hundreds of hours they sat per week in front of a computer by themselves in an office. I suspect they're all male because a certain sex is more predisposed to take responsibility for supervising children should people actually try and have a family, which puts them at a productivity disadvantage relative to the other sex. You'll be getting 40 hours a week, up to 60 depending on special circumstances involving rigid, uncontrollable deadlines. If placement is so difficult following graduation, perhaps the field as a whole should be ponzi scheming training less Ph.D.s and using the leftover money to pay its graduate students a reasonable salary.

Thanks,

Students

P.S. lol@$20,000 annual salary for 100 hours of work a week. Shame on you.

Edited by Jimbo2
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I first saw this a few weeks ago (when the letter was more recent I think). I also remember some other content in this letter so I think this is edited a bit.

I don't disagree with the numbers exactly. I read about some other profs comment on the letter and they said that yeah, they probably worked 80-100 hours some weeks in order to get where they are. I don't doubt that in order to be the top of your field, you do need to put in these hours.

However, like Eigen said, this is not what all grad school is about. You don't have to go into grad school with the goal of being the top of your field. That's not my goal either.

What I don't like about the letter is the tone. The department asked its graduate students for feedback and after the students' honest feedback, this was their response. In addition, the tone of the letter would make someone like me, i.e. someone without the ambitions of being the top 5% or whatever, feel very discouraged. There is nothing wrong with encouraging the "elite" to perform better, but there is something wrong when you tell other students that they are not working hard enough. Especially if you imply that having a family (or wanting to do things with your life other than research) is a "disadvantage".

The other thing I don't like is that the expectations are unreasonable for the "reward" that we get out of grad school. We are paid very little for the number of hours we put in and even accounting for the benefits of education, experience, etc. it is not worth 80-100 hours of my life per week. I work about 50 hours a week, maybe 60 when things are really busy and I plan to continue working that.

80-100 hours is a large amount of time to be putting in every week and I feel like some of this is "when I was your age, I walked uphill both ways to school" kind of talk. My school's (Caltech) graduate student council recently released a survey of grad students asking them how many hours of research do they do per week. Our astronomy graduate students work a median of 40 hours per week. I think the 95th percentile in my department is 60 hours a week. So, I encourage others to NOT think of this letter as representative of graduate programs at all!

By the way, here is more context. Here is the full letter: http://jjcharfman.tu...-correspondance

From the longer text, and from matching up certain names, abbreviations and other terminology, the consensus is that this letter came from the University of Arizona's Astronomy Department. Their website is here: https://www.as.arizona.edu/ (if you want to check / match up terminology). Finally, I've also heard that not everyone that supposed "signed" that letter actually wrote/agreed to all of the text. So, I interpret this letter as the opinion of a small number of people that found this technique/work habit worked for them, but I don't think you can generalize this opinion to the entire UofA Astronomy department, and definitely not to all of graduate school.

Edited by TakeruK
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I agree with what Eigen and TakeruK said, basically.

My father is a biology professor. He's not at a top university but he's pretty solid in his field, and is in fact the chair of the department at his (medium-sized state) university. I was born while he was in grad school and I can tell you that he did not then work 100 hours a week, nor has he done so since. He works 40 hours/week--sometimes during crunch periods (end of the semester, big grant deadlines, etc.) it's 60 hours/week, and sometimes during the summer it's more like 30, but it depends. It is, in fact, possible to be an academic and also be a normal person. My father has three kids, is the president of a large charity's governing board, volunteers for a local school's science programs, and enjoys going to bed at 9:30 PM most nights. He doesn't spend every waking second of his life working in the lab. And wouldn't you know, he's still managed to make some pretty cool discoveries in the past few years!

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Reading other people's responses have helped me put this into context. Yes, this is probably a top-10 program and a lot of those professors maybe did work 80-100 hours a week to get where they are (including time and home reading and such things). With that said, though, I go to a top 10 program myself and I don't think any of my colleagues work 80-100 hours a week. I'd say most work between 40-80 hours depending on the student, the time of year, and what else we have going on. When I was TAing and writing and studying for comprehensives, I easily worked 60-80 hours per week. Now that I am not TAing but just on fellowship and writing my proposal, I probably work about 40-60 hours a week. I don't even think my professors work 80-100 hours a week every week. Right before grants are due and when they have conferences and such, maybe, but even my super-busy advisor (who is up for tenure this year) doesn't work that much every week.

And nobody's here at night or on the weekends. I'm sure many of my advisors are working from home, but I have been in the office late nights working and I have waved goodbye to almost my entire department of professors. The only ones here are the students, lol. It's not that they are never here late, but most people don't stay late every night and people generally do not come in on the weekends. But I am in the social sciences, and we don't need lab equipment, so I am positive people are working from home. I love working from home on weekend evenings - I have so much time :)

However, the spirit of the letter is essentially correct, if you ignore the grossly exaggerated hours. I started working from home more often after my coursework ended and I so enjoyed not trekking up to my space, but the collaboration and people seeing you around the department is so important. They think about you for things, and you have conversations you wouldn't otherwise have. So now I'm up there 2-3 times a week and I go to more colloquia and such. My advisor is not really concerned with seeing me around as long as I am producing work.

Most people do work at their jobs most of their waking hours. Even for a "regular" job where you work longer hours - let's say that you leave the house at 8, get to work at 9, work until 6 and get home at 7. Go to bed at midnight. You have spent most of your waking hours at work, thinking about work. Most academics work even longer days than that, and spend many hours writing on the weekends. Or they leave and when they get home, they write some more. Due to my training I do find myself thinking about my research during most of my waking hours.

And the paragraph about reading the literature is true, too. Reading the lit excites me and gets me thinking about how I could extend the researchers' work. It sounds like perhaps students were evidencing in various ways an unfamiliarity with the literature?

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There are distinct field differences too, even within schools.

Most people here in the medical school work much more traditional 9-6 hours, with time on weekends as needed to tend to cultures, etc.

Grad students working between the two campuses work a lot more, and most of the uptown biomedical grad students work a lot closer to 80+ hour weeks.

In contrast, I'd say most of the physical science and engineering students work much more consistently shorter weeks- 40-60 hours, outside of specific crunch times.

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Additionally - "I love my area of study. Truly, I do--and I love my research. But if it came down to a choice between working on research and sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and a good fiction novel, I'd take the latter in a heartbeat. I'm putting in about 70 hours a week right now and don't think I can go on at this pace."

This attitude means that you should quit and do something else..

Disagree. He's not saying he doesn't like research - he's saying he has other passions, and he does them when he has the chance. I'm sort of in between. Much of my waking hours are indeed spent working on things, and even when I'm not, I'm usually thinking about it - but I also relish free time and being able to relax and just enjoy the tranquility of life. You can't fault someone for taking that position.

Question - how are you people calculating your "hours per week" of work? I find it impossible to do that because "work" for an academic is basically continuous with non-work, and therefore it is difficult to define concretely. As I said above, even when I'm not technically "working" per se, I'm often thinking about work, which is itself a kind of work. Planning is a huge part of doing research. I can't tell you how many times I've been chilling at home or talking to a friend about something non-academic, and I randomly got an idea for research and wrote it on a napkin or something.

Also, I do a lot of my work from home, and I consider this highly advantageous. In fact, there is almost no good reason for me to work in my research center most of the time, because I have access to everything I need from home, including the database of the research center (as I can remotely log in from my PC). The time it takes to commute from home to work and back could be spent getting work done! The whole notion of a rigid workplace with a rigid work schedule is rapidly becoming archaic, and rightfully so. In the next few decades, "work" in all industries will start to happen more and more from home.

So I can't just calculate the number of hours I work. It's not a discrete period of time, like 8 AM to 6 PM. It's more like I'm constantly working on and off all the time.

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I think a lot of the people who are talking in concrete amounts are in the lab sciences, and we're talking about how much time we're spending working in lab, running experiments, working up data, writing on manuscripts, etc.

Or at least, I am.

And there is almost nothing I can really do (or want to do) at home. I hate the trend of working at home. It makes me mix up my off-time with my work time in my mind, and I never really switch off.

It's much more effective to work on things I could theoretically do at home while experiments are running/things are sterilizing/I'm waiting on data to collect. Then after 9 or 10 hours at the office, I can come home and be *done*.

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I think a lot of the people who are talking in concrete amounts are in the lab sciences, and we're talking about how much time we're spending working in lab, running experiments, working up data, writing on manuscripts, etc.

Or at least, I am.

And there is almost nothing I can really do (or want to do) at home. I hate the trend of working at home. It makes me mix up my off-time with my work time in my mind, and I never really switch off.

It's much more effective to work on things I could theoretically do at home while experiments are running/things are sterilizing/I'm waiting on data to collect. Then after 9 or 10 hours at the office, I can come home and be *done*.

+1 if you work from home it feels like you're working 24/7.

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Question - how are you people calculating your "hours per week" of work? I find it impossible to do that because "work" for an academic is basically continuous with non-work, and therefore it is difficult to define concretely. As I said above, even when I'm not technically "working" per se, I'm often thinking about work, which is itself a kind of work. Planning is a huge part of doing research. I can't tell you how many times I've been chilling at home or talking to a friend about something non-academic, and I randomly got an idea for research and wrote it on a napkin or something.

Also, I do a lot of my work from home, and I consider this highly advantageous. In fact, there is almost no good reason for me to work in my research center most of the time, because I have access to everything I need from home, including the database of the research center (as I can remotely log in from my PC). The time it takes to commute from home to work and back could be spent getting work done! The whole notion of a rigid workplace with a rigid work schedule is rapidly becoming archaic, and rightfully so. In the next few decades, "work" in all industries will start to happen more and more from home.

I estimate my hours per week because I have a regular "start" and "end" time each day at the office. I subtract hours for non-work things (e.g. like what I am doing right now) but I include the 1 hour for lunch (since all other jobs include it). Then I add any extra hours I might do at home -- this is usually strictly scheduled because I don't really want to be doing work at home, but when I'm in classes, my work load goes up to about 60 hours a week and I don't want to spend 60 hours in the office a week. So I try to do things like homework at home and that helps me focus on getting some progress on research while at school. I might also do some reading at home too.

Working from home is usually possible for me since I don't work in a lab. I usually only work at home when it's convenient to do so -- e.g. I need to be home because a contractor is coming to fix something, or if I have to do an errand in the middle of the day, etc. Other than homework, I try to view working from home as an exception rather than the norm.

One of the things I try to do is to NOT think about work when I'm not on the clock. I think this might ultimately make me an "unsuccessful" scientist, as defined by the email/letter above! But I don't love science (or anything) so much that I want to do it all the time. If I suddenly come upon an inspiration, I'd jot the idea down for the next day but I wouldn't try to think it through in my head if I'm "off". If it's just a random thought that doesn't seem to have promise, I'd just push it aside. There are too many other things I'd rather be doing (or need to be doing to stay sane)! If I allow science/work to always prioritize my energy, then the rest of my life is going to suffer. After all, I am doing science to have a career that will support the life I want, so it doesn't make sense to prioritize work all the time -- the 50-60 hours I put in is enough. Balance is important!

As for working from home in general (i.e. in all "industries"), allowing employees to work from home is a good thing only if there are still ways for employees to "clock" their hours AND choose their own hours. I think it would be a detriment to the life of most workers if they were expected to be working on and off all day. I know from my own experience as well as those close to me that even a rotating fixed schedule (i.e. still fixed hours but the shifts change every 2 weeks) is pretty disruptive to life outside of work. A flexible work schedule is sometimes nice but the drawbacks is that you won't know when you will be working, so you always have to make plans with "as long as I don't have to work" in mind.

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