Posted by: Jeremy Fox | September 1, 2011

How hard do you work?

This week’s issue of Nature has contrasting stories from two successful biomedical researchers, one of whom works well over 100 hours/week and expects his students and postdocs to do the same, and the other of whom advocates a much more balanced approach based on quality and efficiency rather than amount of work.

My own approach, and the approach I expect of my students, is the balanced one. This undoubtedly has its costs. For instance, I am not super-productive in terms of writing papers, which means I need to submit to good journals and do so with a higher-than-average success rate, which could be viewed as a high-risk publication strategy. But for me, the benefits outweigh the costs, not just in terms of enjoying my life but because I honestly think my science would suffer if I worked all the time. I’m sure I’d be less creative and less thoughtful, and the resulting papers, however numerous, would collectively represent a less (or at least no more) substantial contribution to the field and would have less (or at least no more) influence. In other words, I don’t think it’d be possible for me to keep doing what I do, but just do more of it.

It’s also an approach which I have the luxury of pursuing because I’m a Canadian ecologist. If were not in Canada I would need to spend much more time writing grants, leaving less time for other stuff, be it leisure or other aspects of my job (like “actually doing science”). And if I were in some other field, I might well be racing other competing labs to obtain results. That kind of competition is pretty much non-existent in ecology, where every study, and every study system, is sufficiently unique that you run little risk of being “scooped”. Plus, ecological experiments often take months or years, even in microcosms, so there’s no way to speed up the work by spending more time “at the bench”, as there is in many biomedical fields.

Lately, I’ve wondered if my balanced approach is also a luxury I can afford because I already have a job. I have the subjective impression that young researchers these days are publishing much more than they were even 10 or 15 years ago. When I finished my PhD, I had three publications. Now, they were all first-authored and in good journals, but still, only three. But that was enough to land me a plum postdoc. And I only had three more papers by the end of the third year of my postdoc, again all first-authored and in good journals, but still, only three more. Yet during my postdoc I was getting multiple job interviews every year. Nowadays, I’m not sure my cv by the end of the third year of my postdoc would even make me competitive for an NSERC postdoctoral fellowship, much less a tenure-track faculty position. I’m sure there are various reasons for that, but I wonder if one of them is that students and postdocs these days are just working harder.

So how hard do you work?


  1. Very nice post! And a big deal indeed, especially for young researchers. I’m in my mid-thirties, which makes me kind of medium young, I guess. People at my age typically start to have a family, too, and indeed, it’s very challenging to balance work and the rest of life.

    My strategy is quite similar to Jeremy’s, and I also believe this to be ultimately more viable for the quality of my science. I completely agree that the pressure to produce (no matter what, essentially) is increasing. I read somewhere (wish I could remember precisely where, I think one of the PLOS journals) that a there are more and more super-large lab groups. Why? Because even if you’re useless as a professor, once your group is big, there is a guaranteed flow of ‘stuff’ at all times. Some PhD students or postdocs will be worse than average and others better, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to have occasional really good stuff, too.

    I am finding it particularly concerning that there are now many such groups, in which the lead professor (typically the last author, these days) produces well over 20 papers a year. What on earth can the true intellectual input into these possibly be, by definition? These also tend to be the groups that are part of every ‘big’ project (the EU has these multi-million Euro collaborative beasts), and then, invariably of the next 20-30 author paper in Nature. Is this stuff better or is it just ‘bigger’ and ‘more of it’?

    I am really concerned that we are working ourselves into a culture of quantity over quality. The trick as I see it is to persist in this culture (i.e. get grants and not get fired), while still trying to focus on quality instead of quantity.

    If you feel like checking out some more of my ramblings on this matter, feel free:

  2. I think about this like the law of conservation of energy. There is an efficiency-time input spectrum. But, it is possible to appear to be more efficient with a given amount of time if you have other people working under you.

    Of all of Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa’s publications (~190 over 10 years) he is first author on 35 (18%). That is because Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa has had 245 (!) coauthors throughout his career. Over half of the publications are in 6 “bread and butter” journals for the field (impact factor around 3). It sounds like he spends a lot of time in surgery, securing funding for all of those coauthors, and with patients (certainly a good use of time).

    I am not denying that he works hard, or that his work is impressive and has a major impact. But I don’t think that long hours lead to superhuman status and it is possible to be productive while still reserving time for other goals in life.

  3. Interesting post. I think a slow-steady-high quality approach is still sufficient, but as it relates to getting faculty jobs, connections and name recognition can mean just as much. As a postdoc I’ve steadily increased my pubs over the past few years, which I always assume makes me a better candidate. Yet the one interview I’ve had came when I was fresh out of grad school, and had only 2 pubs. I knew some of the hiring committee through seminars and meetings, which I suspect allowed them to overlook my paucity of publications in return for some sort of promise of future potential (or something!).

    For that reason, I tend to like your approach, Jeremy. I have several “smaller” things I could always spend more time on, but it would definitely come at a cost to the “bigger” ideas I’d like to pursue, not to mention time with family/dogs/music. And I’m not yet convinced that that approach is frowned upon by hiring/funding committees. But ask me in three years….cynicism doesn’t stay idle for long!

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