Suffering is not my Standard by Ioana Weber

This blog has been adapted from an essay appearing in the March 2020 issue, with permission from the author, from the student magazine CNS Newsletter. Check it out here.

When I started my PhD, I treated my project as my ‘baby’ and enthusiastically embarked onto working long days and equally long nights. I distinctly remember cycling home from the lab at 3am on Unter den Linden, intoxicated by the sweet perfume of the linden trees and a rush I could not explain at that time. I had a feeling that I was finally doing the right thing in order to succeed—the thing which was presented to me as a necessity and hence expected of me. Now, results were bound to follow. This meant that nobody, not even my self-distrusting mind, could say I wasn’t putting enough effort in, should the results not roll in. I continued doing this for about half a year, across pilot experiments and until I fully delineated my research plan for my PhD project, and, after few months off for a break, where I felt inexplicably lacking in energy, I continued to do this for three more years.

You can measure burnout proximity by how easily the stacks of empty cans topple out of your lab cupboard. Image: The author

The twist in the story? The more I tore into my energy reserves with long workdays, the more my perception of my research started to change. As it turns out, lab procedures that were once fun started to feel tedious and unmanageable, the finicky ones like nerve-wracking exercises, and setbacks I would have normally taken in stride started to seem insurmountable. On the background of this tiredness, my experiments stopped working, as they inevitably tend to do when you’re just starting out in a field, and, when no recognition came for the long hours of trying to make things work, only criticism for the absence of results, the sole thing I reaped was burnout. In hindsight, I had it foreshadowed precisely by those sluggish months in my first year. Bad as this experience was, I still had a crucial advantage: I did this out of fear of failure and ambition. Others don’t have it that “good”: I know fellow PhDs, especially from the U.S., who simply have no choice but sleeping in the lab and working, working, and then working some more in order to keep hold of their contracts and visas. I also sometimes slept in my office, but I had the “luxury” to at least not be doing it because it was an explicitly stated requirement. Overwork is pervasive in PhD students, and there are many people who stay in academic science working at this pace for dozens of years.

Why is Overwork the Standard?

The question is, why has overwork become the standard we measure performance by? Why do we need such smugness about overwork to confirm our own worth to ourselves? Why is academic science so obsessed with comparing who worked the most, in almost inhumane orders of magnitude?

In the end, nobody who has financial or administrative power over you cares anyway about how long you work, only about your results…which don’t get better by getting scared half to death by unknown employees roaming the corridors at 3am.

Long hours don’t guarantee the production of results at a faster pace than a more normal daily workload, as has been established for a long time in the working world outside academia. Additionally, many people falter in the face of the pressure to work like this before the world gets to benefit from their potential. In the words of an unknown wise person on the Internet, “too many people burn out before they have a chance to truly shine.”

It would be easy for me to say that we all have the choice to not torture ourselves by running “just that one last qPCR” (for non-initiates, one of the most stupefyingly fiddly, attention-demanding and repetitive procedures in the wet lab) when we are already tired from a ten-hour work day. However, the truth is that this choice is often taken from us beforehand by the fact that we are made to constantly seek out that rush of smugness that I seem to have experienced from overwork. I have some ideas of what the causes could be.

Widespread Toxic Narratives

It seems to me that this smugness stems, first and foremost, from the feeling that one finally conforms to the work ethic narratives we hear all over the place from people in positions of power and influence. I’m going to use Elon Musk as a first example here, whose brilliance at solving important problems in record time is much lauded (for instance, in this series of excellent essays by WaitButWhy’s Tim Urban). In nearly every interview, he credits the success of all his business ventures and his problem-solving acumen to working extremely long hours (usually around 80–120 hours per week). As a second example, we also get this hustling mindset due to the boom of the gig economy and start-up scene, and the public presence of many a hip entrepreneur who knows how to extol the benefits of “work hard, party hard”.

In reality, things are not as rosy as these prominent figures would have us believe. I have interacted with a handful of very young, very driven start-up owners from the Berlin scene, and, cheerful and convincing as they may look for that hour of interviewing, they are anything but living the good life on a daily basis. Those regular fourteen-hour workdays many of these entrepreneurs are telling us about, slightly smiling with a whiff of superiority over nine-to-five mortals? After some time in the field, those days are most often fuelled not by the everlasting power of having a higher calling, but by drugs. Similarly, Tesla, Musk’s probably best-known venture, has attracted a lot of criticism for its high employee turnover and injury rate, and, surprise! this is also due to the challenging working conditions imposed on the employees. Naturally, this is a democracy, so nobody is, technically speaking, forced into slavery. But, if the sources are to be believed, Musk compels such overwork by repeatedly suggesting that those who can’t pull it off just don’t feel enough of a calling, since this is obviously enough to keep him himself going. It turns out that, in this case, just like in academia, simply working for a higher calling does not automatically protect you from burnout. Quite the contrary.

Since these are the narratives we hear all the time from influential people in academia, I believe that this is why impostor syndrome is rampant in almost everyone. The bar is just in too high a place to ever reach: one is never productive enough, never the proper amount of passionate about one’s research, never safe from getting scooped. As if it’s not bad enough in the other work domains to have women and minorities suffer from crippling anxiety that they are not up to the field’s standards, we academics have magnanimously extended that possibility to everyone working in this establishment. And can someone, in the face of the mounting body of evidence, wholeheartedly believe that being made to feel anxious all the time doesn’t facilitate the clear mental health crisis in academia? Anxiety contributes to stress, and stress about things one cannot or can hardly change over extended periods of time breeds depression. So why are we having such a hard time resisting these narratives?

I suppose this has not been new information for the vast majority of readers who stumbled upon this blog. I maintain that our search for that overwork-induced smugness in scientific research (and other academic disciplines) stems from how normal the abnormal has become in terms of the types of human interaction that are too often encountered in the academic hierarchies.

Bad working conditions…

For the moment, however, science (and academia generally) breeds droves of researchers that are either happily mentally isolated in the proverbial ivory tower, or are perpetually tired, stressed and overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks they are expected to perform well at, when, in reality, the only task they ever get recognition for is generating papers full of positive findings in their fields.

This sounds bad enough in theory, but is even worse in practice, as almost anyone who has worked for longer than one year in academic research can probably tell you. I heard plenty of small sentences with a big long-term impact, such as: “When I was a postdoc, I never worked under 12 hours a day”, “Me? I barely had any expenses as a PhD—I learned to survive on very little in terms of food and hardly any entertainment”, and finally, “Oh, I was working full-time on my research, and just worked in the service industry on the side, because the lab ran out of funds to pay me.” As someone who has worked in the gastronomic service industry, I can tell you that even a few hours of waitressing can kill your energy levels for the day, and being able to think of nothing but when you’ll be able to get some rest doesn’t exactly enable you to achieve intellectual peak performance. (I still don’t know how people who work a second job outside of academia find the physical resources to further their research. All of my respect to you).

Just dismissing this incredible amount of strain and the existence of the expectation to go through it with, “Everybody is tired, everybody is stressed, and so was I when I was at your stage” not only amplifies the suffering of the individual by implying it’s not valid, making us care less and less about a system that does not care about us. It is also a calculation that simply does not follow, because bad working conditions are counterproductive to doing the best research we could be doing.

…do not breed good work

Generating novel ideas and innovative solutions to problems on the frontiers of human knowledge is no mean feat even in a health-promoting environment. It is therefore nigh-unbelievable that some of this still works out, given all the factors I outlined as mental health risks, and given all the other academic tasks that eat away at your attention. I assume that this is known to you if you are the kind of person who, like me, doesn’t like to put her name on half-baked teaching plans, presentations, grant/scholarship applications, and student supervision.

The computer science professor Cal Newport popularized the well-known concept that, for deep thought to occur – the kind that leads to the oh-so-sought-after paradigm shifts – most people need to be by themselves with only their own ideas and time on their hands. Here, they may revel in only slowly analyzing important issues, and be able to become profoundly engaged in doing so.

However, when was the last time you were genuinely bored and had time to sit around thinking about your research? My best guess is never, as we have a seemingly indestructible culture of busy-ness and working long hours, while quiet time for reflection, reading and forming new ideas are often not well-looked upon.

I still remember an internship in my studies in which my direct supervisor, a PhD student, was surprised and a bit scared to learn that I had spent a full day reading and preparing my final presentation. The sentence that was uttered? “You should be careful with doing these things during working hours. No PI will like you taking time from experiments for this, since giving presentations is for your personal benefit.”

In scientific research as in business (especially the start-up scene I mentioned before), it is normal to be swamped with very different commitments (or to act the part), and not being so is immediately scrutinized as “taking it too easy”. We work in an environment that mistakenly assumes that the highly intense “sprint working” one does to kick a project off is something that is sustainable on marathon-long spurs, and, hence, being perpetually tired and overworked have been elevated from a nuisance to a presumed necessity for success and a status indicator. If you don’t believe that this is the culture we work in, take it from the philosopher Agnes Callard: “In an academic context, I’ve noticed that complaining about how busy one is hits a sweet spot of oppression — I cannot manage my life! — and importance — because I am so in demand!“. However, the idea that busy-ness and long working hours are a necessity for success does not follow from the most recent studies on performance.

We work in an environment that mistakenly assumes that the highly intense “sprint working” one does to kick a project off is something that is sustainable on marathon-long spurs.

Many people are familiar with the “10,000 hour study“. This was a study of virtuoso violinists, which found that that’s about the number of hours of practice required to master an instrument. This finding has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers“, thus spreading like wildfire in all sorts of fields of work, which made the expectations to work long hours soar everywhere (see above, e.g., the hustling mentality in start-ups). However, one crucial aspect that is rarely mentioned is that high performers also plan in times of rest and relaxation, and, in the case of the violinists, never practice above a certain number of hours a day, and certainly not after the point when they are not able to give practice their full focus anymore. After all, it is not only our time that is finite, but also our energy, and working or practicing when we are not able to focus only breeds burnout and costs us and our employers more in the long run than simply working at a moderate pace would.

The 10,000 hours study itself has been called into question several times in its entirety, and the conclusions of meta-analyzing the attempts to reproduce it aren’t quite what the original authors would like. As per an article of Brian Resnick, practice accounts for only about one fifth of the performance differences between good and elite players, and the failure to replicate the original study’s findings, “[…] also means that a great many other factors — like genetics, personality, life history, etc. — makes up the majority of the difference.”

Taken together, this means that there’s only so much one can achieve with investing tightly crammed hours into becoming better at something, such as learning the facts of one’s field and the ropes of academia. It certainly does not motivate the stress brought about by the excessive working hours that are expected of all scholars. In fact, it is known that imposing a certain number of work hours on employees only leads to the phenomenon known as “presenteeism”, where employees spend long hours at the workplace to impress their superiors, even though they are not able to deliver anything else for the day (see this, this and this article for the information, and see this for a poignant comic discussing the issue and its implications). And now even Anders Ericsson, one of the original authors of the 10,000 hours study, has stated that performance is not birthed from just those 10,000 hours, but is contingent on receiving good mentoring. In his own words:

Just working harder or working more does not seem to be associated with high levels of performance. Rather, if you’re working with a teacher or a mentor who has attained this high level of performance, that individual can help you now design the kind of training activities that they may have engaged in in order to reach that higher level of performance.” — Anders Ericsson, author of the 10,000 hours of practice study.

Science, is, of course, no exception to this, but, for the moment, insufficient mentoring is also a striking deficiency of academia.

The Core Issue is Systemic

By now, it should be obvious to the reader that all of this extreme stress and long working hours are doing anything but turning us into better researchers. Why, I ask, is it then, in the face of such a body of evidence, still considered par for the course to suffer like this while we work in academia?

I firmly believe that this stance on how science should be done is merely a symptom of a systemic issue. Aside from the fact that science could really do with some catching up on organizational psychology (that discipline that helps companies maximize their gains by supporting employee wellbeing…) and could use a lot more funding to take some of the competitive edge off, I think that a significant part of the issue is a harmful mindset that we would do well to weed out if we want the academic work culture to ever change.

What I think keeps the factors leading to such severe psychological suffering alive is the fact that it has been, and still is, seen as normal for young researchers to go through the extensive suffering I described in the first ten-something years of their careers, like some sort of sadistic coming-of-age ritual.

With the ever-increasing amount of knowledge on how certain aspects of scientific work culture harm the ones who are supposed to be the most productive, I say that it is up to you, dear research group leader reading this, to take action against the suffering and be better than your academic predecessors. Not having suffered is not a career shortcoming, and I hope we can agree that suffering shouldn’t be wished on others just because it happened to us.

Ioana Weber is completing her PhD investigating at the interface of neuroscience and developmental biology. She loves being a science-to-layperson translator and is enthusiastic about sharing knowledge in general, but especially pertaining to making everyone feel more content at and with their work.