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?